Edison’s Day May Be Done

May 5, 2005
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This is a story about bright lights in the big city, and the fact that Toronto governments, businesses, and homeowners are paying more than they need to each year on their electricity bills.

There’s no disputing that Thomas Edison was a bright guy, having invented an incandescent light bulb that could burn for more than 1,000 hours. It was a major breakthrough, and 125 years later we’re still faithfully using what is essentially the same technology.

But that technology is inefficient and wasteful, at least when compared with light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. New advances in these semiconductor-based lights, those glowing dots commonly found in alarm clocks and stereo systems, are resulting in higher-intensity LEDs that are ideal in an increasing number of lighting scenarios.

Down the road, some experts believe, LEDs could challenge the incandescent bulb’s tungsten grip on general lighting applications. And a growing number of decision makers are picking up on the trend, realizing that LEDs offer a way of lowering electricity consumption and costs.

As for environmental benefits, they naturally follow.

Last week, the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, or TABIA, was a runner-up in the “market transformation” category of the first annual Green Toronto Awards. The organization was recognized for a two-year-old program that encourages Torontonians to ditch their incandescent Christmas tree lights in favour of an LED alternative.

(Full disclosure: I was a judge in the category and the TABIA program was one of my top picks.)

Now, if ever there’s a reason to go LED, it’s with Christmas lights. Unlike incandescent bulbs, which burn filaments in an airless glass casing, LED technology converts electricity directly into light. There’s no glass to break, less fire hazard and no bulbs to change every season. The LED lights last between 50,000 and 200,000 hours, dozens of times longer than your typical incandescent bulb, and come in red, green, yellow, blue and white.

“The traditional 5-watt incandescent light sets with 70 lights consumes about 350 watts, whereas a string of 70 LED lights uses only a few watts of power, or 3.6 watts,” according to TABIA. “With as much as 97 per cent conservation in electricity, the lights pay for themselves in electricity savings.”

The organization has been quite successful with its program, having sold more than half a million sets of LED lights in 2004.

In February, the mayor of Los Angeles flicked a switch that turned on 160 LED-lit lamps decorating the Vincent Thomas Bridge, a city landmark and one of the largest suspension bridges in California. Three blue LEDs are contained in each lamp and are as bright as a 150-watt incandescent bulb but with a fraction of the power consumption.

Taking the project a step further, the Los Angeles department of water and power built a 4.5-kilowatt solar-panel system that, because of the lower power usage of the LEDs, offsets nearly all of the electricity consumed by the lights.

There was no choice, really. A government order during the California energy crisis prohibited decorative lighting projects on state buildings and structures, including bridges. Introducing solar was considered an acceptable compromise.

Back in Toronto, the city is doing its part to reap the benefits of LED technology. Joining a group that includes Mississauga, Calgary and several municipalities in British Columbia, city council recently approved an $18 million, four-year plan to convert 1,920 intersection light signals across the city to LEDs.

Some of the funding will come from Toronto Hydro and possibly the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, which financed an original pilot study and has been pushing hard for a citywide conversion.

“The financial and energy savings from the conversion would be significant,” Rob Maxwell, acting executive director of the fund, said in an email exchange. “LED conversion would reduce electricity consumption by 84 per cent resulting in a $2 million (annual) cost savings, and it would reduce (carbon dioxide) emissions by over 5 million kilograms per year.”

Maxwell said the cost of the project could fall. LED light prices are on the decline, and the city would likely be able to negotiate an attractive bulk rate by purchasing nearly 2,000 units.

“In addition, rising energy prices could make future cost savings more significant,” he added.

But traffic lights aren’t the only signal that LEDs are taking off in the city. Last month, Victoria-based Carmanah Technologies Inc., a manufacturer of LED lighting products, announced that Toronto is spending $660,000 to install solar-powered LED lighting in 200 bus shelters, adding to the 150 shelters already using the technology.

Art Aylesworth, president and chief executive of Carmanah, was originally skeptical that such general illumination using LEDs could be done and be completely powered by solar panels atop a bus shelter.

“In the end, our guys were able to make something that lit the shelter well. It was far and away the brightest of anything they had, including their fluorescents that were hard wired,” Aylesworth explained in an interview earlier this year.

“General illumination is going to be very big.”

“There’s this real appetite for anything that’s alternative energy and that works. Everybody likes this stuff, but they’ve had this experience that it’s either too expensive or not reliable. We’re trying to bridge that, and I think we’re ahead of the curve.”

It should be pointed out that the Toronto Port Authority uses Carmanah’s solar-powered marine LED lights, while Toronto’s city centre and Pearson International airports use the company’s aviation lights for their runways.

Who knows? Maybe next we’ll see solar-powered LED zeppelins floating across Toronto’s skyline. Joking aside, the days of the incandescent bulb appear to be burning out. There’s a new light at the end of the tunnel.