Global LED domination came early, now what?

When we started this magazine four years ago, LED was just at the start of the adoption journey. I had just witnessed one of the first LED high bay installations, Birmingham had bravely started a widespread LED rollout for residential streetlighting, and we would see the occasional glimpse of the future through a showcase all-LED supermarket eco-store.

I have the scars of the past four years; from verbal pitched battles with manufacturers that suggested T5 lamps would last another 20 years, to heated debates about the viability of LED retrofits and the questionable clauses in manufacturers’ warranties.

In much the same way, I assume, fax machine manufacturers argued that email would never catch on because people liked to keep paper copies.

“The larger traditional lighting companies have said the move to LED is happening twice as fast as they predicted”

So where are we today? Local papers are littered with stories of angry residents complaining about streetlighting switch-offs or blue LED lights that spill too much light, or too little light, that dazzle them when driving or prevent them going to sleep at home. I was recently in B&Q watching members of the public carefully trying to understand why they should pay £4 for an LED candle lamp over £1 for its CFL cousin. Why do shops that sell lamps never have the competing technologies lit up so customers can make an informed choice? Instead they are left to study a raft of unfamiliar terms – lumens, colour temperature – and we complain when consumers won’t pay for quality light sources.

Meanwhile, supermarkets are rolling out LED retrofits across their estates with gusto. I was amazed last week when I walked in to my local M&S Food to see that the five-year-old T5 system was being ripped out and replaced with an all-LED scheme. I wouldn’t have noticed, had it not been for the fact that it was, should I suggest, a little bit darker than it used to be. That drew my attention to the old system that was still in situ, switched off. If this is the state of LED adoption, we have truly passed the tipping point.

As if to confirm my analysis, the larger traditional lighting manufacturers have indicated that the move to LED is happening twice as fast as they predicted. The long-heralded golden tail of traditional lamps has turned in to a lead balloon – or as my colleague Mark Halper described it, a dead albatross.

 I have long argued that if you are a dominant player in traditional lighting you have everything to lose and not much to gain. In the good old days of T5, if you didn’t win the order for the light fitting, then you had a chance to supply the control gear and the gift that keeps on giving – the lamp, destined to expire every 5-10,000 hours. This has been keeping the biscuit tin full at lamp producers for over a century.

You see the battle to maintain sales revenue being played out in the larger traditional lighting companies’ annual accounts, stagnant or low growth and a statement about how much revenue is accounted for by LED, about 40 per cent is the going rate today. It is easy to get the percentage of LED revenue to grow, just sit back and watch the traditional stuff fall off a cliff. The challenge is to maintain overall sales revenue, which means you have to convince customers to rip out the stuff you sold them five years ago, which is the stuff that has until now been the lamp-replacement cash cow.

So can we pack up and go home now we are heading towards global LED domination?

Thankfully not. We can get back to business as usual and discussing light in its broader terms. For as long as we have light, some people will opt for low-quality, low-cost light and our mission is to show value in choosing a better option that is not just good for your wallet.

And that debate has raged since the dawn of artificial light.