For years, we have been watching as LED technology has improved and the cost of LED replacement bulbs has gotten lower and lower. Compact fluorescent bulbs have become commonplace, which has been instrumental in saving energy and lowering electricity costs for millions of consumers. But still, we've been waiting for LEDs to reach the point where they start being widely used. And now, it looks like that point may be here.

By the middle of 2011, a new 12-watt LED bulb from Osram Sylvania is scheduled to be available from all Lowes stores.

The Osram Sylvania Ultra A-Line LED bulb produces 810 lumens. This compares quite well with a standard 60-watt bulb (the one I checked is listed at 830 lumens). The LED bulb uses 12 watts, versus the 60 watt incandescent, which is an 80% energy savings.

And the LED bulb should last 25 times as long as a conventional bulb.

The biggest remaining question will be consumer acceptance. Does the LED bulb provide an adequate distribution of light, without the "hot spots" and dim areas characteristic of some earlier LED bulbs? And is the color rendering of the LED good enough to make it an acceptable substitute for an incandescent bulb? The A-line bulb has a color temperature of 2700 Kelvin and a color-rendering index (CRI) of 91. (An incandescent bulb has a perfect value of 100.) Most fluorescent bulbs have a CRI ranging from the low 50s to the high 80s, so the quality of the light should be quite good.

LED lights may have some end-of-life issues with circuit-board materials, as do compact fluorescent bulbs, but, especially with RoHS regulations in place in many parts of the world, those are minor compared with the question of mercury in compact fluorescents. Of course, it's not a problem if the CF bulb is recycled (and more and more places are now taking those bulbs for recycling so that is becoming less of an issue, as well).

And the total amount of environmental mercury is lower when considering the amount of mercury put into the atmosphere by burning coal to produce all the additional electricity that a conventional incandescent bulb requires as compared to the amount that would be spilled if a bulb was broken rather than being recycled, so concerns over CFLs should already be pretty well settled.

The 8-watt A-Line bulb costs around $20 and is available right now. The 12-watt A-Line bulb should be in stores in the first half of 2011.