Credit: Cree Inc.

Credit: Cree Inc.

I hope this story doesn’t come off as a promotion for Cree Inc., but a number of coincidental observations and news threads had me thinking about the company and the state of commercial and retail LED sales.

Now, I should note that the Durham, N.C.-based company has a lot of good competitors in the LED marketplace, including companies such as Nichia Corp., Osram Opto Semiconductors, Philips Lumileds Lighting Co., Seoul Semiconductor, Epistar, GE Lumination, SemiLEDs Corp., and I should be clear to readers that I have no particular insights as to Cree’s relative standing among them.

But, two weeks ago I received a news release from Cree—now a $7 billion corporation founded in 1989 as a spinoff by researchers from North Carolina State University who were delving into applications for silicon carbide in electronics—proclaiming it was “redefining the mid-power LED market” with the introduction of a family of ceramic-based LEDs “that offer no-compromise performance and reliability.”

I have little expertise in LED applications, so I have to take the company’s word that the ceramic-based LEDs “enable lighting manufacturers to create a new generation of more energy-efficient, longer-life LED lighting solutions without sacrificing cost or performance… [and] are optimized for fluorescent-replacement-lighting applications, such as troffers and panel lights.”

In the same release, the company compared its new LEDs to the plastic variety in regard to stable lumen maintenance and good color consistency. It says, “… the ceramic-based XH LEDs are designed to deliver the long L70 lifetimes at high temperature and high current operation of Cree’s other high-power LEDs, such as XP and XT LEDs. In comparison, plastic LEDs are known for very short L70 lifetimes at high-temperature and high-current operation. The XH LEDs allow lighting manufacturers to offer products that meet the reliability expectations of LED technology.”

Last week I got another release from Cree announcing a new line of LED products designed as an easy-to-use retrofit/upgrade kit for linear fluorescent lighting. Cree isn’t the first to develop a fluorescent retrofit, but what caught my attention in the release is the company’s claim that a typical payback period is only two years. It says the kit uses 50 percent less energy, provides better light, and lasts up to twice as long as the standard 32-W fluorescent lamps it replaces. The two-year payback period is based on a comparison to a fluorescent three-lamp 88 system watt setup used 12 hours per day with electricity costs of $0.11 per kWh.

My third Cree-related thought occurred when I was strolling through my neighborhood Home Depot and spotted a big display for Cree 40-watt and 60-watt equivalent bulbs. The display highlighted a $9.97 price for the 40-watt replacement. What shot through my mind was, first, that’s a really smart psychological move by Cree/Home Depot to be offering an LED for less than 10 bucks, and second, I wondered, when did Cree get in the consumer LED business?

In fact, I found out that Cree has only been in the consumer bulb business since March, when it announced an exclusive marketing deal with Home Depot and proclaimed that its strategy from the beginning was to break the $10 barrier price point.

My guess is that products in the $10-$14 range will give a nice goose to LED sales, and extend the market beyond geeky early adopters. Just two years ago, unidirectional LEDs were selling in the $30-$50 range, so that is a fast improvement.

But, before you get too excited about a $10 home LED, it appears that similar LEDs are currently selling for half that much in China. According to the LEDinside, by April the price for a 40-watt equivalent in China had dropped to about $4.10.

Looking forward, I think these products and this market is going to be extremely interesting to watch. On one hand, there are a lot of players, especially in Asia, but the market is wide open. LEDs, of course, will eventually evolve into commodities and “winners” and “losers” will soon be sorted out in ways similar to other commodity production, i.e., managing production costs, quality control, and risk management.

But, in the meantime, I expect to see more and more companies, at least in the US, following Cree’s lead and engaging consumers, contractors and building managers in presenting products that strongly conform to existing form factors (make them look like typical tubes and bulbs instead of Star Trek trinkets) and marketing them with compelling payback period arguments in timeframes they can wrap their heads around (two-years being a good starting point). 

Finally, for those that like the guts of electronics, here are some pretty good tear down and testing of the Cree bulbs: