Lights Fantastic, and Efficient

Monday, September 18, 2006

But while the public is switching to new technologies that are revolutionizing lighting, planners at the top can't seem to turn off old thinking.

Simon Minett looks around a conference room at the historic Old Mill Inn and points to four grandiose chandeliers, each carrying 11 light bulbs, hanging from the ceiling. He then guides our attention to the several dozen recessed lights that are also shining brightly, almost unnecessarily.

"This simply wouldn't exist in Europe," says Minett, managing director of distributed energy advocate COGEN Europe, speaking earlier this month to an audience attending the 5th Annual Decentralised Energy Conference. "All these lights would be compact fluorescents."

He accurately refers to a cultural disconnect between Canada and Europe, the latter being subject to higher electricity prices and therefore much more aware of the importance of conservation and energy efficiency.

He points to the fact that the province of Ontario uses half as much electricity as the United Kingdom, with a population and economy only a fifth the size.

A pretty disturbing track record, even if you account for our winter heating needs, illustrating how much room there is to reduce electricity consumption in this province.

So it was with a bit of surprise that I read the following statement in an electricity load forecast report issued Sept. 7 by the Ontario Power Authority: "Lighting grows with household growth, with a slight increase in the penetration of compact fluorescent lighting over the forecast period."

The italics are my emphasis, and the forecast period in this case is a two-decade time frame stretching us to 2025. Also alarming is that the power authority is predicting an increase in electricity for lighting in the commercial and industrial sectors.

What the power authority is telling us is that we won't see much efficiency gained through the use of better lighting technologies over the next 20 years, an assumption we should all find difficult to accept.

First of all, there's no shortage of new technologies, on the shelves and in the works, that we'll be seeing over the coming years, all promising to make the standard incandescent energy hog a creature of the past.

Have these load forecasters looked at the shelves of Home Depot, Rona, or Ikea recently? Compact fluorescent light fixtures, which use two-thirds less energy than the typical screw-in light bulb and last up to 10 times longer, already take up major shelf space and are falling in cost.

Considering the public awareness and promotion campaigns around these lights, it's hard to imagine that a "slight" increase in their residential use is all we'll see.

Inroads are also being made with light-emitting diode or LED technology for use in general illumination. Last month Osram Sylvania launched a line of LED lighting products for the home - desk, table and floor lamps - that use 5 watts or less, are durable and last up to 20,000 hours.

That's 20 times longer than an incandescent bulb, which by the way is more easily damaged by movement and wastes 95 per cent of its energy as heat (making your air conditioner work harder and use more electricity).

In Victoria, B.C., a company called Carmanah Technologies can't keep up with demand for its solar-powered LED lighting systems, which airports, municipalities, transit authorities and defence departments across North America and Europe are eagerly ordering.

The reason is because for some applications, it costs more to put in electrical wiring - say, to a bus shelter or an airport runway - than to pay a premium for lights that can operate exclusively on sunlight and battery technology. Each system sold means a lighting system that won't be drawing from the electrical grid.

Art Aylesworth, chief executive of Carmanah, said in an interview earlier this month that the company's technology is "crystallizing" in the area of general illumination and that it will eventually target its LED light systems at everything from walkways and parking lots to school campuses and phone booths.

Mind you, these are outdoor products not targeted at residential markets, but they contribute to awareness of LED technology's potential and offer a peek of what's around the corner.

Not too far from Carmanah is Burnaby, B.C.-based TIR Systems Ltd., which touts itself on its Web site as "Building the Foundations of Tomorrow's Lighting." TIR's Lexel LED technology is aimed at general lighting and promises an 80 per cent reduction in electricity consumption.

Steve Campbell, a spokesperson for TIR, calls lighting the "low-hanging fruit" for efforts to address the Kyoto Protocol and global warming. "No other world energy consumer represents a faster opportunity to reduce global energy consumption," he told me earlier this year.

"The potential is a 10 per cent reduction in total global electricity consumption if LEDs took over all lighting."

He explained that all new technologies, such as LED lighting, start out targeting niche markets but then eventually go mainstream as costs decrease and performance improves. "There's a Moore's Law (more performance at less expense) cost-performance effect in LED lighting called Haitz's Law that tracks the progressive improvements in this area," he explained. "Currently, the industry is delivering improvements ahead of Haitz's Law projections."

That means LED developers are heading toward lower-price markets that aim to replace the filament-based light bulb.

And it's not just LED technology heading in that direction. Earlier this year I profiled an Ottawa-based company called Group IV Semiconductor, which has developed a silicon-based lighting technology similar to LEDs in efficiency and bulb lifespan.

The difference, chief executive Stephen Naor told me at the time, is "we think our light quality will be better than (what is) achievable through LEDs." He also holds that Group IV will reach the milestone of a $1 light bulb faster than the LED industry.

The company, which is expected to reveal more details of its technology later this month, has attracted financing from Vinod Khosla, one of the most successful venture capitalists in Silicon Valley.

Fibre-optic technology is also beginning to muscle into the lighting market. Solon, Ohio-based Fiberstars Inc., for example, can take a single high-intensity light source and have it carried to eight different end points by shining it through a fibre-optic cable.

The system has four to six times the life of an incandescent or halogen light source and uses as little as 20 per cent of the energy of a comparable light system based on traditional technology. Despite being an architect's dream, the application may be quite limited for homes. But think of the potential for shopping malls, grocery stores, hotels and office buildings.

Heading in a similar direction is Oak Ridge, Tenn.-based Sunlight Direct LLC, which designs what it calls hybrid solar lighting.

The fact is, many buildings are depressing, windowless chambers that need lighting even during the day when the sun is shining strong. Sunlight Direct uses a solar concentrator and carries the outdoor natural light into a building through a system of fibre-optic cables.

According to the company, one of its systems "can deliver 50,000 lumens of sunlight." This is equivalent to about 17 fluorescent lamps covering up to 1,000 square feet - just from the sun. The system is integrated with a building's existing lighting fixtures, which are automatically turned up when a cloud blocks the sun or during the night.

Speaking of automation, let's not forget the range of light sensors and software out there that's helping building managers and homeowners make the most efficient use of their lighting and save money in the process.

Rising environmental awareness, steadily increasing electricity prices, industry innovation and heightened public awareness are all combining to drive acceptance of these new technologies - and it won't take 20 years for them to have a significant impact, despite what some power authorities are assuming.

In the residential sector, change is in the air. EnerQuality Corp., which oversees Natural Resources Canada's Energy Star program for new homes, released results of a homebuyers survey this month and found that nine out of 10 respondents said their next home would be an energy-efficient one.

Furthermore, an encouraging 84 per cent rated efficiency as "important" when buying a home, citing lower energy bills as their top concern.

Given the optics, a skeptic could be forgiven for accusing the power authority of underestimating naturally-occurring trends in energy efficiency and conservation, so that the McGuinty government's targets for conservation, backed possibly by weaker than necessary public policy, can more easily be met down the road.

This, of course, would be doing a disservice to a Canadian province that through a European lens is viewed as an energy dinosaur.

A load forecast? If you ask me, the load in question is more the stoop-and-scoop variety.