The drop in price has helped increase demand, retailers and manufacturers say, although they still represent only about 1 percent of the bulbs in US homes, according to industry estimates. LED sales over the past few years have doubled at retailers like Home Depot and Bulbs.com, company executives said, reaching roughly 20 percent of their total lighting sales.
LED sales are expected to grow sharply, especially given the steep subsidies utilities pay manufacturers and distributors to bring prices even lower by the time the products reach the lighting aisle.
“We want to invest heavy now because we feel this is where the future is going to be,” said Caroline Winn, vice president for customer services at San Diego Gas and Electric.
The subsidies — which are ultimately paid by ratepayers — generally go only to lights carrying an Energy Star designation. To get it, compact fluorescents and LEDs must use only a certain amount of energy and meet a variety of other requirements, like dispersing light in all directions and accurately rendering the color of objects they illuminate, that make them seem more like conventional bulbs.
California is taking the color requirements, among others, for LEDs even further. The specifications are voluntary, but only bulbs that meet them can qualify for utility rebates, potentially giving them a price advantage over other bulbs, even those that meet Energy Star guidelines.
“We’re not going to spend public dollars on a lamp that doesn’t meet this, but people can still sell a noncompliant lamp in California,” Flamm said.
In the end, consumers now face a bewildering choice. Customers who once walked into a store looking for a familiar measure of wattage are now being confounded by a dizzying array of technologies, shapes, brand names and hard-to-translate measures of brightness, energy consumption and appearance.
“I actually start hyperventilating in the light bulb department in Home Depot: sooooooo confusing,” Finkelmeier wrote in an e-mail.