Why LED Retrofits Are The 'Trojan Horse' Of The Internet of Things
By Heather Clancy
One of the most compelling data points I’ve come across in my usual year-end deluge isthis one from Navigant Research: over the next seven years, annual sales for occupancy sensors, photosensors and lighting network gear related to LED lighting applications will grow from $1.1 billion in 2013 to $2.7 billion by 2020.
Certainly, that’s an appreciable growth rate, but if you think about the foundation that those sensors will create not just for more efficient commercial lighting but for many other “smart” applications, things get even more exciting.
Here’s what Navigant has to say in the executive summary for its report, “Intelligent Lighting Controls for Commercial Buildings”:
“Falling LED prices are driving up adoption rates of LED lamps, which in turn will drive up the adoption of lighting controls. The semiconductor nature of LEDs makes them inherently controllable, with better dimmability, easy integration of controls with drivers, and instantaneous setup. In fact, many LED lamps are being sold with built-in controllability, whether or not there are plans to make use of the control.”
Each new LED fixture can, in essence, become the node on an intelligent controls network. Yes, these networks are really good at turning off the lights when people aren’t around or dimming them when it’s bright, saving electricity. But those sensors are also harvesting other useful data about temperature, occupancy and their surroundings that could have all sorts of other applications.
Consider, for example, a smart LED lighting retrofit on a city street. Aside from the benefits that the municipal government could receive from lower electricity consumption and reduced maintenance expenses, that network could also support new revenue-generating services such as smart parking, by being able to sense which spots are open and sending that information to a mobile app in real time. Add some cameras, and your town can issue parking tickets more efficiently.
In a commercial building, LED lighting networks can help with security applications, letting people when someone has entered a room, or they could help with simple administrative functions, such as managing conference room attendance or keeping track of which department uses certain areas and resources.
You know those mobile marketing applications that retailers get all excited about? The ones that can deliver promotion or offers to prospective customers as they enter or move about a store? One of the easiest places to install the in-store sensors is within the lights shining above and all around those visitors. Another potentially huge application would be keeping tabs on food expiration dates, to minimize spoilage.
“You start to catalyze light, and then ultimately it is the infrastructure. We are the most prolific application in the Internet of things,” said Brad Bullington, CEO of Bridgelux, an 11-year-old company that has raised about $250 million in venture capital to develop its ideas.
One thing that makes Bridgelux interesting is its manufacturing partnership with Toshiba, which will help commercialize its solid state lighting more quickly. The estimated energy savings from its technology is about 65% over traditional technologies.
“The cost of LEDs and solid state lighting in general has come down faster than it would in a normal competitive environment. Prices have been accelerated by maybe three years,” he said. “That has helped global adoption creep up over 10%.” (The fastest growing market is Asia, followed by the Europe; with the United States lagging, according to Bullington.)
Both Bullington and the CEO of another smart LED company, Sensity Systems(formerly Xeralux), call LED lighting the “Trojan Horse” of the smart this-and-that movement. “What really is important is the network, the applications that are making use of the information being collected,” Hugh Martin, chairman and CEO of Sensity,told me in June 2013. “It is extremely important that we have a launch vehicle, lighting, be we are focused on the development of a Big Data infrastructure in the cloud, so that people can develop other applications.”
Sensity can name more than 200 customers that are buying into this idea, including the likes of healthcare company Kaiser Permanente, tech powerhouse Hewlett-Packard and real estate management company Shorenstein.
The latter, for example, testing smart LEDs in its parking lots as a means of reducing its power bills and introducing better surveillance systems. Another customer, the country of El Salvador, is installing the technology throughout the entire country: aside from the lighting, it is looking at national security applications, and solutions for better import and export controls.
To be sure, there will be privacy concerns with many of these applications, especially considering the ongoing fallout over the extent to which governments should or should not collect information. This is another case whether the technology is evolving faster than the policy around it.
What’s more, the LED lighting solution sales cycle still is pretty long. Bridgelux’s Bullington notes that any organization considering this technology has to look at the long-term picture, including energy costs, in order to justify a retrofit. And prices for the cheapest industrial and commercial lighting option, linear fluorescent lighting, are still so cheap that it will take a long time to displace it.
“In regions with a history of significant energy efficiency programs, linear fluorescents have clearly been established as the baseline replacement technology for high-bay lighting, accounting for a 78 – 80% market share,” according to a 2012 American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) white paper about lighting programs across the United States.
But if you look beyond strictly the lighting applications, the case for retrofits becomes even more profound. That’s why companies like Bridgelux have grown more than 546% over the last four years. (Although it’s private, that’s the estimated growth rates according to the recent Deloitte Technology Fast 500.)