Go LED and kill Hazelwood?

According to analysis conducted by Beyond Zero Emissions, lighting in homes is responsible for about seven per cent of household electricity use, and around 30 per cent of electricity for commercial and retail buildings.

That's quite a large amount of energy use, but it could be about to fall drastically, perhaps by as much as a large coal power station's worth of electricity demand. That's a hefty amount when energy utilities are already seriously challenged by falling electricity demand.  

As reported by Gerard Wynn, LEDs (light emitting diodes) are now set to dominate the global lighting market. In the general lighting market the consultants McKinsey & Company forecast a 45 per cent market share for LEDs by 2016, up from 9 per cent in 2011. 

Electronics giant Philips has completely ceased research and development into fluorescent lighting technology, recognising that the future is in LEDs. Other companies in the semiconductor business, not traditionally in lighting, are getting in on the act. In Australia, companies are springing up that come into your home or business and do a full change-out to LEDs. Even McDonald’s restaurants are making the switch.  

Beyond Zero Emissions' Buildings Plan research is proposing a full switch to replace all existing lighting with LEDs within 10 years. This would result in up to 80 per cent reduction in lighting energy use for most building categories.

These energy savings are in the order of 15 terawatt-hours of electricity per year: more than Victoria's notoriously polluting Hazelwood power station could produce if it ran flat out, non-stop, for an entire year. Avoiding the burning of all that brown coal would avoid CO2 emissions of over 20 million tonnes of CO2 per year. 

The US Department of Energy chart below shows the trajectory of improvement of LED lights as compared with other technologies. There is a lot of further improvement to be had, with the US DOE supporting a realistic goal of reaching 200 lumens/watt (compared to 60-90 lumens/watt in products on the market now).

Chart from US Department of Energy (USDOE) - “Solid-State Lighting Research and Development: Multi-Year Program Plan”, April 2012.

And this improvement in light output only begins to tell the story of why LEDs are taking the lighting market by storm.

LEDs are available for every sector of the lighting market: residential, commercial, street lighting, and more. What’s more, they already outperform the competition (fluorescent and halogen) on most indicators.

People should start switching to LEDs today. In some applications, savings can already be had now – from the day the LED light is switched on. For example, replacing a failed fluorescent light fitting/luminaire now costs no more with an LED equivalent, but the LED will use less electricity from the start.

Payback on the cost of the LED occurs quickly. Lower energy use and the fact that LEDs have a projected lifespan of decades mean that savings should occur within as little as six months.

LED costs are coming down and these economics will only look better each year for some time to come. US Department of Energy analysis predicts that LEDs will be about $6 per 1000 lumens of light by 2020 – matching older lighting technologies even on the upfront price.

Right now, though, it is LEDs' other superior characteristics that really shine (if you will pardon the pun).

When Malcolm Turnbull regulated lighting efficiency, leading to the old incandescent bulbs being taken off the market by 2009, many people bought (or were given) compact fluorescent (CFL) lights as replacement. Unfortunately, many people were unhappy with their performance.

Although CFLs use much less energy than incandescents or halogens, many people were initially disappointed with their light colour quality, the time to warm up and shine at full strength, and their tendency to flicker.  While many CFLs in the market today perform well on these characteristics, first impressions count. Unfortunately, the least efficient technology, halogen lighting, has made headway as a result.

LEDs can realise superior efficiency  to CFLs, but the better quality LEDs are also capable of achieving better light quality, with a warm light that is comparable to halogens. They turn on instantly, and they do not flicker.

Unlike halogens  where more than 90 per cent of electricity is wasted as heat, LEDs do not become dangerously hot. The superior efficiency of interior building LED lighting has a positive knock-on effect in summer – less electricity is needed to drive air conditioners.

Comprehensive uptake of LEDs would therefore reduce the National Electricity Market’s peak summer time demand. This might remove the need for more fossil fuel generation – perhaps even a gas-fired power station or two.

Halogen downlights, on the other hand, can cause a serious problem with heat – and have been a major cause of household fires. Halogen downlights therefore require holes through ceiling insulation to vent the heat, allowing both heat and air to escape (or enter) the room – reducing the usefulness of the insulation by a large amount. A replacement LED downlight requires no more than a cap over the top – simply to protect the electronics of the device – and allowing insulation to be placed in a continuous layer above that cap and to perform as it was meant to.

These superior features across all facets of performance mean LED lights are the 21st century lighting technology we need. They are a product of and for the silicon age, and will have a major effect on reducing energy use.

Reducing energy consumption is good for homeowners and businesses (if we exclude the electricity suppliers). It's also a positive note in the battle to reduce carbon emissions. The less energy demand, the less solar and wind energy we need to build for a 100 per cent renewable, 21st century energy supply system.

Trent Hawkins is the project co-ordinator for the Zero Carbon Australia buildings report.

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