Capture efficiency potential by designing buildings compatible with 21st century lighting

Peter Garforth wonders if LED lighting is ready for prime time.

By Peter Garforth

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Recent columns explored the macro movements in the global energy market that are redefining the scale and cost of cleaner energy alternatives. Sometimes these horizons are so broad it is not always easy to see how they affect local practice. However, these trends are transforming tactical choices such as LED lighting.

Winds from at least three major markets are redefining the playing field for LEDs. China is the world’s largest consumer of efficient energy options, as they try to avoid the worst environmental impacts of growth. This also creates manufacturing with accelerated exports as a huge added bonus. Germany and Japan are restructuring their electricity use to manage the accelerated closure of nuclear plants. Combined these are driving huge volumes for LED lights, pushing down prices and increasing choices. At ground level, It is not always easy to tell when a product moves into the mainstream from being a niche choice. So are LEDs ready for prime time, and are they the right choice for your next lighting project?

On efficiency, it is hard to argue against them. The only alternative that beats them on efficiency is well-thought-out day-lighting. The combination of LEDs and day-lighting controls reduces energy use to a fraction of relatively recent alternatives. This is made even more flexible by the excellent dimming characteristics of many LEDs.

Lighting consumes nearly 20% of global electricity generating the equivalent of 70% of the world’s car emissions.

In any application where accessibility is an issue, the right choice of LED is a real winner in reducing the average intervention time to clean and replace lamps. It is no accident that the early adopters of LEDs were application such as street lights and traffic signals where the labor savings was a decisive factor. As is so often the case, our procurement process fails to capture benefits like reduced maintenance, yet again a reason to change the way we buy. The notoriety of early LEDs failing to meet their targeted lives of many years has encouraged manufacturers to improve quality control and offer robust warranties.

The harsh light quality of early LEDs was reason enough not to use them. Manufacturers have now mastered predictable color temperatures in a wide range of fittings. The negative light quality argument is increasingly going the other way, especially relative to CFL and other fluorescent alternatives. The crisp light quality, immediate start, and dimming characteristics are seen as desirable improvements over the recent past. Ironically these are characteristics of incandescent bulbs that are most missed.

Peter Garforth heads a specialist consultancy based in Toledo, Ohio and Brussels, Belgium.Peter Garforth heads a specialist consultancy based in Toledo, Ohio and Brussels, Belgium. He advises major companies, cities, communities, property developers and policy makers on developing competitive approaches that reduce the economic and environmental impact of energy use. Peter has long been interested in energy productivity as a profitable business opportunity and has a considerable track record establishing successful businesses and programs in the US, Canada, Western and Eastern Europe, Indonesia, India, Brazil and China. Peter is a published author, has been a traveling professor at the University of Indiana at Purdue, and is well connected in the energy productivity business sector and regulatory community around the world. He can be reached at peter@garforthint.com.

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Relative to most alternatives, the initial cost of LEDs is still substantially higher. However, prices have halved in the past three years and are expected to fall a further 80% in the next decade. Given the decision cycles of many large companies, prices may well have dropped significantly by the time final procurement occurs. More importantly, with lighting that has a lifetime measured in tens of years, does it make any sense to value them based on today’s electricity price? On a recent American project, the 10-year electricity price risk was estimated between 50% and 105% higher than today’s level. Even at the low end of risk, LEDs would win hands down on cost.

So to answer the question, LEDs are ready for prime time on all critical dimensions. But like so many things in the fast moving energy field, the weight of relatively recent objections deters adoption. This is exacerbated by decision-making processes that maybe made sense for an incandescent light bulb that lasted 1,000 hours, but make no sense for a lifetime measured in tens of thousands of hours.

Another factor in the cost of LED lighting is the need to fit into an electrical and lighting architecture designed for a totally different technology. An LED light is a DC device as are most computer and similar devices. Even with the massive efficiency gains they bring, there is still the burden of AC-to-DC conversion. With rapidly falling prices for LED and solar PV, another DC device, it doesn’t take too much imagination to anticipate buildings with parallel AC and DC systems. DC would carry most of the lighting and IT, and AC would carry motor-driven devices and legacy systems.

Lighting consumes nearly 20% of global electricity generating the equivalent of 70% of the world’s car emissions. A switch to LEDs and day-lighting is a big deal viewed at the macro level. At the site level, with falling costs and lifetimes of many years, does it really make good business sense to make lighting decisions based on initial cost and current electricity prices? When will we be ready to capture the full efficiency potential and start designing buildings compatible with 21st century lighting and informatics rather than something conceived at the end of the 19th Century?

Like many new energy technologies, LED lighting is ready for prime time. Are we ready to prepare the stage?

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