President Obama emphasized advances in efficient lighting yesterday in a campaign narrative that connects his clean energy goals with American job growth.

He visited election-important North Carolina to underscore the improvements to light-emitting diode (LED) technology since his last presidential campaign in 2008 -- when he appeared at Cree Inc. for the first time, a few months before capturing the state's Electoral College votes.

Since then, the company has doubled the efficiency of its lighting products and expanded its manufacturing capacity, hallmarks of an improving technology that analysts say is becoming cheaper in the stores.

"So you're helping to lead a clean energy revolution," Obama said at the Durham plant. "You're helping lead the comeback of American manufacturing. This is a company where the future will be won."

The company is a symbol of Obama's election platform, which focuses on reducing unemployment -- not just pollution -- with clean energy programs. Cree employs about 5,000 people. But Obama and efficiency advocates also point to the potential for new construction and supply chain jobs as businesses and homes are retrofitted to save energy.

Obama's plan to make commercial buildings 20 percent more efficient by 2020, his Better Buildings Initiative announced in February, could result in 114,000 new jobs, according to a report released yesterday by the U.S. Green Building Council, the Real Estate Roundtable and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The plan uses tax credits, loan guarantees and other incentives to promote building retrofits. Several sectors could see employment bumps, including heating and cooling, office equipment, water heating and building weatherization. In lighting, about 13 new people for every $1 million invested could be hired by bulb makers, installers, trucking companies and machine shops, according to the report.

DOE: Solid-state lighting has unique potential

"The Administration and Congress should work expediently to implement these policies and jumpstart the new retrofit economy in the country's largest buildings," the report says.

Efficient lighting plays a key role in saving energy and reducing emissions. With billions of light sockets in the United States, the conversion from incandescent bulbs to more efficient ones, like compact fluorescent lights or solid-state lighting like LEDs, represents a relatively inexpensive and easy way to reduce pressure on the electricity sector.

Lighting is the second-largest use of energy in residential and commercial buildings, accounting for 14 percent of energy use in residential buildings and 22 percent in commercial buildings. If the nation converted entirely to solid-state lighting, it would save enough electricity to power the entire country for 18 months within 20 years, according to the Department of Energy.

"No other lighting technology offers DOE and the nation so much potential to save energy and enhance the quality of our built environment," the agency said in a lighting report this year.

The federal government has been funding LED research for nearly a decade. Funding levels increased substantially in 2005 with the introduction of the Next Generation Lighting Initiative, a provision of the Energy Policy Act passed that year by Congress. Funding in 2005 was $12.7 million; last year it reached $27 million. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act also gave lighting manufacturers a boost of $50 million in 2009, according DOE.

The technological advances have resulted in cheaper prices, a factor that Obama pointed out yesterday.

Bulb prices 'declining rapidly'

He said Cree is "extraordinarily effective in driving down the costs of high-efficiency lighting that is, over time, I think, going to make a huge difference, not just for businesses who use the technology, but also for a country that needs to figure out how do we operate in a more energy-efficient way."

LEDs are still more expensive than incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs, but DOE says the prices are "declining rapidly" -- by about half from 2009 to 2010, to $18 per thousand lumens (klm). The agency estimates that within four years the price will be $2/klm.

Lighting has also become a symbol of big government. Lighting efficiency standards passed by Congress in 2007, which require bulbs to use about 30 percent less power, have been attacked by conservative groups for limiting individual choice.

The National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank, said Obama's visit to Cree sheds light on the failure of his clean energy "fantasy," which the group claims is borne by expensive light bulbs and anti-business regulations.

But energy efficiency is not as partisan an issue as climate change. Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) are trying to find support for a wide-ranging efficiency bill that improves building codes and appliance standards and provides low-interest loans for home retrofits.

"Efficiency is a Republican approach, as far as I'm concerned, because it's about conservation," Portman said last week. "Being more efficient in our use of energy is going to result in us not having to build as many power plants. So that also has environmental benefits."

Portman said he is speaking with Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he is hopeful a sponsor could introduce similar legislation in the GOP-led chamber.

Obama's speech coincides with a suite of new policies announced by the White House yesterday meant to modernize the nation’s electric grid. The plan provides $250 million in loans for rural "smart grid" projects and commits DOE to help consumers access their own energy information.

"The announcement is a milestone in the drive to provide consumers with access to their energy information," said Amy Davidsen, U.S. director of the Climate Group. "We know that this important first step has the potential not only to save consumers billions of dollars on their electricity bills, but also to drive major emissions reductions through greater efficiency."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500