LEDs Signal Energy Revolution

November 26, 2003
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While governments have diddled for decades in the energy marketplace, subsidizing a 500-megawatt nuclear plant here, a 5,000-kilometre Arctic pipeline there, the big energy gains have come via pint-sized innovations in conservation and energy-efficiency. This decade, the biggest little gainers on the planet are LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, those gizmos that first entered the public consciousness in the 1970s through calculators and digital watches.

LEDs are fabulously efficient devices that often can save upwards of 90% of the energy required by conventional lighting methods. Their latest accomplishment: They have just about taken over the market for exit signs in commercial buildings, where they now have an 80% market share. Not impressed? The electricity savings from this one tiny segment of the North American marketplace amounted to about 7.5 terrawatt hours in 2002, and once LEDs have fully penetrated the exit sign market, the North American power grid will no longer need the output of closer to 10 terrawatt hours. That’s equivalent to the power produced by almost three Pickering-sized nuclear reactors.

LEDs will soon dominate the North American traffic light market, too, in the process eliminating about five terrawatt hours a year, or one-and-a half nuclear reactors. It has just started in on billboards and other commercial signs (another two reactors), and Christmas lights (just one-half reactor, because the holiday season is so short).

LED products like these eliminate the need for electric power plants. Other LED products reduce the need for oil wells and tar sand plants. The biggest potential here lies in lights for cars, trucks and buses, into which LEDs have just begun to make inroads. More than 1.5 billion gallons of gasoline a year, and 1.2 billion gallons of diesel fuel, would be saved once LEDs take over. That’s enough fuel to drive all the continent’s cars for four days a year, and all its buses and trucks for 12 days a year.

Large-scale energy supply projects such as nuclear plants and Arctic pipelines leave behind large footprints that create a host of problems for society: They produce pollutants that need to be managed, they consume land that needs to be expropriated, and they require subsidies that need to be raised through taxes. Efficient devices like LEDs, in contrast, tend to solve societal problems instead of creating them by contracting the footprint.

Because LEDs convert more fuel into light than heat, they save on air conditioning costs. Because they produce little heat, they require less heat shielding and cause fewer fires. Because they need less energy to do the job, they produce less pollution. Because they last 10 times longer and are far more durable, they often pay for themselves in maintenance costs alone.

In automobile taillights, for example, these and other design features produce lights that will outlive the vehicle. No replacement costs. No warnings from policemen who otherwise pull you over to tell you you’re driving with a faulty light. No traffic accidents, and liability, caused by lights that fail to function. LEDs, in fact, are safer than conventional lights that function perfectly. LED headlights direct more of their light to the road surface, where it’s needed, less into the eyes of oncoming drivers. LED brake lights take 200 milliseconds less time to turn on: For a car travelling on the highway at about 100 kilometres per hour, that comes to about six metres — more than the length of most cars. To boot, because LEDs are compact, and don’t need access panels for their replacement, they give car designers more options and drivers more trunk space.

LED technology is still in its early days. Although it is present in hundreds of different consumer markets, all involve niche applications, generally where coloured light is required. It has yet to make a breakthrough in most white-light settings, such as street and residential lighting, but those days are fast approaching.

LED’s accomplishments have come chiefly through the efforts of companies like General Electric Co., an early innovator, and without subsidy. Governments have a role to play, though, if they want to speed the pace of LED development, and that of other energy-conserving products. They can stop subsidizing the nuclear plants, Arctic pipelines and other large-footprint projects that compete with the countless little innovations that ultimately make all the difference in the world.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation.