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Buildings and Cities

LED Lighting (Household)

A Tarahumara woman in Cueche, Mexico, in her home with a single LED lantern. Imagine your house without lighting at night. Now imagine the blessing of even a single LED lantern. If used 5 hours a night, one bulb should last 27 years, making it the least expensive form of illumination on the planet.

The origin of LEDs (light emitting diodes) dates back to the 1874 invention of the diode—a crystal semiconductor. Under certain conditions, diodes emit light. In 1994, three Japanese scientists invented high-brightness LED bulbs, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2014.

LEDs work like solar panels in reverse, converting electrons to photons instead of the other way around. They use 90 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs for the same amount of light, and half as much as compact fluorescents, without toxic mercury. By transferring most of their energy use into creating light—rather than heat, like older technologies—LEDs reduce electricity consumption and air-conditioning loads.

The price (per watt equivalent) for LEDs is two to three times higher than incandescents or floursescents, but falling rapidly. And an LED bulb will last much longer than either other type. Still, upfront cost remains an obstacle for household adoption.

When the sun sets, more than a billion people live in the dark. Low energy use means LEDs can be powered with small solar cells. Solar-LED lights can replace expensive kerosene lamps and their noxious fumes and emissions, while addressing the problem of light poverty.


diodes emit light…observed in 1907: Zheludev, Nikolay. “The Life and Times of the LED—a 100-year History.” Nature Photonics 1, no. 4: 189-192; Schubert, E. Fred. 2014. Light-emitting Diodes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

1960s…commercial applications: Zheludev, Nikolay, “Life and Times”; Schubert, E. Fred. Light-emitting Diodes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Nobel Prize in Physics in 2014: Overbye, Dennis. “American and 2 Japanese Physicists Share Nobel for Work on LED Lights.” New York Times. October 7, 2014.

LED [vs.] incandescent [vs.] compact fluorescent: Pimputkar, Siddha, James S. Speck, Steven P. DenBaars, and Shuji Nakamura. “Prospects for LED Lighting.” Nature Photonics 3, no. 4 (2009): 180-182. 2009.

80 percent of…energy use [for] creating light: Pimputkar et al, “Prospects.”

kerosene lamps…emissions: Lam, Nicholas L., Yanju Chen, Cheryl Weyant, Chandra Venkataraman, Pankaj Sadavarte, Michael A. Johnson, Kirk R. Smith et al. “Household Light Makes Global Heat: High Black Carbon Emissions from Kerosene Wick Lamps.” Environmental Science & Technology 46, no. 24 (2012): 13531-13538; Meaker, Morgan. “The Developing World Faces a Silent Killer. Could a $1 Solar Light Help?” The Guardian. March 1, 2016.

“A sixth of humanity…[vs.] the electrified world”: Mills, Evan. “Can Technology Free Developing Countries from Light Poverty?” The Guardian. July 30, 2015.

India…1 million solar lighting systems: REN21. Renewables 2016 Global Status Report, Paris: REN21 Secretariat, 2016.

lighting…global electricity use: Neslen, Arthur. “Plan for 10 Billion Ultra-Efficient LEDs Lights Up Paris Climate Summit.” The Guardian, December 7, 2015.

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