Before the introduction of LED lamps, three types of lamps were used for the bulk of general (white) lighting:
Incandescent lights, which produce light with a glowing filament heated by electric current. These are very inefficient, having a luminous efficacy of 10-17 lumens/W, and also have a short lifetime of 1000 hours. They are being phased out of general lighting applications. Incandescent lamps produce a continuous black body spectrum of light similar to sunlight, and so produce high Color rendering index (CRI).
Fluorescent lamps, which produce ultraviolet light by a glow discharge between two electrodes in a low pressure tube of mercury vapor, which is converted to visible light by a fluorescent coating on the inside of the tube. These are more efficient than incandescent lights, having a luminous efficacy of around 60 lumens/W, and have a longer lifetime 6,000-15,000 hours, and are widely used for residential and office lighting. However, their mercury content makes them a hazard to the environment, and they have to be disposed of as hazardous waste.
Metal-halide lamps, which produce light by an arc between two electrodes in an atmosphere of argon, mercury and other metals, and iodine or bromine. These were the most efficient white electric lights before LEDs, having a luminous efficacy of 75–100 lumens/W and have a relatively long bulb lifetime of 6,000-15,000 hours, but because they require a 5 - 7 minute warmup period before turning on, are not used for residential lighting, but for commercial and industrial wide area lighting, and outdoor security lights and streetlights. Like fluorescents, they also contain hazardous mercury.
Considered as electric energy converters, all these existing lamps are inefficient, emitting more of their input energy as waste heat than as visible light. Global electric lighting in 1997 consumed 2016 terawatthours of energy. Lighting consumes roughly 12% of electrical energy produced by industrialized countries. The increasing scarcity of energy resources, and the environmental costs of producing energy, particularly the discovery of global warming due to carbon dioxide emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, which are the largest source of energy for electric power generation, created an increased incentive to develop more energy-efficient electric lights.
The first low-powered LEDs were developed in the early 1960s, and only produced light in the low, red frequencies of the spectrum. The first high-brightness blue LED was demonstrated by Shuji Nakamura of Nichia Corporation in 1994.The existence of blue LEDs and high-efficiency LEDs led to the development of the first 'white LED', which employed a phosphor coating to partially convert the emitted blue light to red and green frequencies creating a light that appears white. Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Nakamura were later awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the blue LED.
China further boosted LED research and development in 1995 and demonstrated its first LED Christmas tree in 1998. The new LED technology application then became prevalent at the start of the 21st century by US (Cree) and Japan (Nichia, Panasonic, and Toshiba) and then starting 2004 by Korea and China (Samsung, Kingsun, Solstice, Hoyol, and others.)
In the USA, the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 authorized the Department of Energy (DOE) to establish the Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize competition, known as the "L Prize", the first government-sponsored technology competition designed to challenge industry to develop replacements for 60 W incandescent lamps and PAR 38 halogen lamps. The EISA legislation established basic requirements and prize amounts for each of the two competition categories, and authorized up to $20 million in cash prizes. The competition also included the possibility for winners to obtain federal purchasing agreements, utility programs, and other incentives. In May 2008, they announced details of the competition and technical requirements for each category. Lighting products meeting the competition requirements could use just 17% of the energy used by most incandescent lamps in use today. That same year the DOE also launched the Energy Star program for solid-state lighting products. The EISA legislation also authorized an additional L Prize program for developing a new "21st Century Lamp".
Philips Lighting ceased research on compact fluorescents in 2008 and began devoting the bulk of its research and development budget to solid-state lighting. On 24 September 2009, Philips Lighting North America became the first to submit lamps in the category to replace the standard 60 W A-19 "Edison screw fixture" light bulb, with a design based on their earlier "AmbientLED" consumer product. On 3 August 2011, DOE awarded the prize in the 60 W replacement category to a Philips LED lamp after 18 months of extensive testing.
Early LED lamps varied greatly in chromaticity from the incandescent lamps they were replacing. A standard was developed, ANSI C78.377-2008, that specified the recommended color ranges for solid-state lighting products using cool to warm white LEDs with various correlated color temperatures. In June 2008, NIST announced the first two standards for solid-state lighting in the United States. These standards detail performance specifications for LED light sources and prescribe test methods for solid-state lighting products.
Also in 2008 in the United States and Canada, the Energy Star program began to label lamps that meet a set of standards for starting time, life expectancy, color, and consistency of performance. The intent of the program is to reduce consumer concerns due to variable quality of products, by providing transparency and standards for the labeling and usability of products available in the market. Energy Star Certified Light Bulbs is a resource for finding and comparing Energy Star qualified lamps. A similar program in the United Kingdom (run by the Energy Saving Trust) was launched to identify lighting products that meet energy conservation and performance guidelines.
The Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA) in 2008 published a documentary standard LM-79, which describes the methods for testing solid-state lighting products for their light output (lumens), efficacy (lumens per watt) and chromaticity.
In January 2009, it was reported that researchers at University of Cambridge had developed an LED lamp that costs £2 (about $3 U.S.), is 12 times as energy efficient as a tungsten lamp, and lasts for 100,000 hours.
As of 2016, in the opinion of Noah Horowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council, new standards proposed by the United States Department of Energy would likely mean most light bulbs used in the future would be LED.