Call it the curse of the CFL.

Back in 2007, before those swirly twists of glass had become mainstream, their energy-gobbling predecessors were put on death watch by Congress. The incandescent bulb, in use for more than a century, was judged too inefficient to meet the new standards established that year as part of a broader energy bill. Come 2012, the regulations require that common household bulbs use 20-30 percent less electricity. The U.S. push isn’t unique, either: similar rules are coming on line in Australia, Canada, and Europe.

Enter compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs. It didn’t take long for the bulbs to emerge from their niche status and go mainstream, hyped by a blitz of utility incentives, industry ads, and public service messages. Spurred on by high electricity prices, the public dutifully unscrewed their Edison-era bulbs and subbed in the new eco-alternatives.

The backlash began almost immediately.

Compared to the familiar, warm light of incandescents, the glow of the worst compact fluorescents could be harsh, even cadaverous. The new bulbs were sometimes too big to fit under light shades or into fixtures. They weren’t dimmable. They could take minutes to warm up. And despite prices of more than $10 per bulb, many compact fluorescents burnt out in mere months, not years as the packaging promised. Bad publicity piled up, and sales slowed.

“As an industry, we overpromised the benefits that CFLs could deliver,” says Phil Rioux, a top executive with lighting giant Osram Sylvania. “We can’t repeat that mistake.”

Rioux previously managed the company’s compact fluorescent business. Now he’s general manager of the division in charge of introducing the next generation light bulb to the world — one that manufacturers and the government are counting on to replace incandescents and avoid the pitfalls that soured the public on compact fluorescents.

The new bulbs are called light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, and since the day they were invented some 50 years ago, they’ve been recognized as the future of lighting. LEDs can produce light twice as efficiently — in warmer, more eye-pleasing colors — than today’s compact fluorescents and last up to five times longer. And despite their still high up-front price, LEDs are popping up in everyday devices, from traffic lights to car signals to laptop screens, where their efficiency and durability are most valued.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is keen on the technology because a full-scale switch to LEDs promises huge reductions in national energy consumption and carbon emissions. Today, about 22 percent of U.S. electricity consumption is for lighting. By 2030, the DOE estimates, a gradual introduction of high-efficiency LEDs could cut energy use for illumination by 25 percent overall and shave as much as 6 percent from total electricity consumption.

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