Energy efficient lighting - what's the future?

By Paul Stathis
Tuesday, 10 July, 2007


Is the government's banning of incandescent lamps in favour of compact fluorescents the right step, or we should look for better lighting technology to save our environment? What are the consequences and what are the other options?

The Australian government's decision to ban incandescent lamps in favour of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) is seen as a globally iconic step for the environment. But some suggest it's not enough, or that we should look for better lighting technology to save our environment. Could we be taking the wrong path without considering all the options?

We've been lighting and powering our homes and businesses for over a hundred years, with little thought to how much energy we consume, to the point where our century of thoughtlessness has led us to crisis, with our blue planet turning into a 'green house', now forcing governments, industries and communities to make radical changes to our energy consumption.

Statistics suggest lighting is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs), consuming 20-25% of all electricity generated in Australia, so improving lighting efficiency will significantly reduce emissions. Putting it into perspective, the Climate Group reports Victoria alone currently generates 1.85 million tonnes of GHGEs a week.

Our government's initiative, announced as a world-first by Environment and Water Resources minister, Malcolm Turnbull, aims to reduce Australia's GHGEs by 4 million tonnes by 2012. As good as that sounds, it's only half the job - just domestic lighting. What about commercial lighting where fluoros have been used for decades? Does that suggest we can't reduce energy consumed by commercial lighting any further? And will GHGE reductions be negated by increases in toxic chemicals from used CFLs dumped in landfills? These issues may question the validity of the directions we're taking with lighting.

The 2006 Building Code of Australia forced the electrical industry to deploy energy-saving commercial lighting strategies like high-efficiency lamps, fittings and control systems, which will significantly reduce GHGEs. The CFL initiative adds to it, but what other issues emerge?

CFLs - the pros and cons

Lighting Council Australia chairman Russell Loane states the incandescent phase-out is welcomed but adds: "While there are compelling reasons to embrace CFLs, there are technical issues which need to be resolved in the phase-in period before incandescent lamps are banned, including dimming CFLs, adapting CFLs to some light fixtures and determining appropriate exemptions for special needs such as medical and appliance lighting".

According to Philips research, over 40 million incandescent bulbs are used annually in Australia. Since CFLs consume 80% less power than incandescents, we'll see a dramatic reduction in GHGEs when they become the norm. They also last five times longer, so far fewer units will be replaced each year, perhaps just 8 million units instead of 40 million, producing added environmental benefits of less fuel consumed and pollution produced in making and shipping them and less waste build-up in landfills.

But this initiative has a dark side. Anne Prince, CEO of Australian Council of Recyclers (ACR), says moving to CFLs without corresponding legislation governing their disposal is an ecological disaster in the making: "We need to be smart enough to avoid creating a mercury-pollution problem in order to fix a carbon-pollution problem. With the phasing out of incandescent lighting, it's now definitely time for Australia to join the rest of the industrialised world in banning the dumping of fluorescent lights in landfill and introducing a collection system to ensure proper recycling".

Professor John Buckeridge, head of civil, environmental and chemical engineering at RMIT University agrees, adding: "If we continue to allow dumping of fluorescent tubes into landfill the consequences will be disastrous. We can expect increases in neural degeneration and a surge in nervous diseases and deaths associated with mercury poisoning".

ACR says energy-efficient lamps, like CFLs and HIDs, contain mercury. While they're totally safe to handle and use, the mercury released from broken lamps can be an extremely dangerous neurotoxin.

Advanced Recycling Australasia CEO, Doug Rowe, adds that industry and households are largely unaware of dangers associated with fluoros in landfill: "Governments need to take leadership and act on recycling legislation now. Phasing out incandescent lighting without bringing in proper recycling laws for fluorescents is simply swapping one environmental problem for another".

But there's a twist to the recycling argument: fluoros will be used throughout Australia, but recycling plants are located in only a few places. How much fuel will be consumed and how much pollution produced to ship truckloads of fluoros around the country? It's not as simple as the government just making us recycle fluoros. We have to think about the total impact on the environment rather than just mandating CFLs.

Another CFL hurdle is that fluoros have ballasts that lower a site's power factor, consuming more electricity and producing more GHGEs. Commercial sites counter this with power factor correction (PFC), but it's not provided in domestic installations. So while one house filled with CFLs has little impact, all houses in Australia will collectively have the potential to counteract some of the GHGEs reductions brought about by CFLs. Will this result in the need for domestic premises to have PFC provided for them? If so, how will this be sold to consumers on top of the added cost of CFLs?

LEDs - the alternative future?

While CFLs are the current approach to reduce GHGEs, despite their not-so-obvious shortcomings, many lighting professionals point to LED technology as a better alternative. But are they a commercial reality and if so, when could they take over the lighting market?

"LEDs are mainly used in signage, decorative and outdoor domestic applications at present," states Osram's LED national sales manager, Chris Dodds. "But we've just released LED lamps to replace 20 W dichroics in retail installations and we'll be releasing a 50 W version later this year, so they'll be making an impact on conventional lighting in the very near future. To be commercially viable though, LEDs need at least 40 lumens-per-watt (lm/W) and we're just getting there now. CFLs are very efficient at 50-60 lm/W, so it's obvious why the government is pushing them for domestic lighting. Once LEDs exceed this though, they'll become the norm.

"But even without LED technology in general lighting, there are still many things lighting designers and electricians can do to reduce energy wastage. To start with, they shouldn't be careless in using high-consumption products. There are big differences in energy efficiency in different sorts of lamps, so they need to know what the most energy-efficient lamps are for each specific application, be it office, retail, domestic, warehousing or outdoor and only install high-efficiency lamps. CFLs are more efficient than incandescents, as are metal halides than mercury and CFLs than halogens. Being conscious of these differences before buying lighting, contractors can make a better choice on what to install.

"There's also a trend for builders to source lighting for their projects themselves and give them to the electrical contractor to install. They do deals with suppliers for good pricing, but don't know or care about energy efficiency. The running costs don't affect them, but they do affect the building occupants and the environment. If electrical contractors can't convince builders that they should select the lighting, they should at least educate builders on the differences in energy efficiencies in lamps and steer them clear of inefficient ones. It's really a matter of knowing what's on the market and what's best for the client and environment."

LED development is faster than traditional lighting because it's a solid-state device from the IT world where development cycles are faster, so we should see LED-based lighting emerge on the market quicker than we've historically seen. IT technology also experiences relatively fast price erosion, so Dodds suggests LED lighting may also become more competitively priced over the next few years.

Thorn Lighting advocates LEDs, stating on its website: "LEDs are the light source of the future, having extremely long life and zero maintenance. Their small size makes them very versatile and can be used as a design element for accent lighting. As point light sources, they provide high levels of efficiency and beam control. They're vibration-proof, contain no mercury and emit no UV or IR radiation. Their low power consumption means low energy costs; and their low voltage means easy installation".

Philips is also active in LED technology. Their LED solutions today are primarily geared toward decorative domestic lighting. But Philips' development in LED lighting promises even greater energy savings in the future.

"LEDs have the potential to revolutionise lighting, with Nichia's invention of white LEDs," comments Switched on Innovations MD, Ed Darmanin, one of GE Lumination's leading LED distributors, who has a wealth of knowledge in LED applications. "What will happen is that, as LED technology is introduced, it will co-exist alongside current lighting technologies like fluoros and CFLs, much the same as DVDs and VCRs did for a while, but market share will shift as the more superior technology gains a foothold in the market. This is already happening in the signage industry where LEDs have taken market-share away from neon and replacing fluoro backlighting in large box signs."

The adoption of LEDs in commercial and domestic applications may even be driven by government intervention again to further lower GHGEs.

LEDs in signage

Darmanin says LEDs are ideal for signage, with environmental benefits over traditional neon: "Neons contain mercury vapour which is released into the environment when they break, often occurring during transport, installation, in service and when dumped in landfills. LEDs however, contain no mercury, being made up primarily of safer recyclable materials.

"Buyer beware - not all LED systems are created equal! Not only are there different quality LED chips, but system design, componentry and assembly also directly affect reliability and longevity. There's no point quoting a 50,000-hour LED life if the system driving it fails after three months. The biggest challenge for LED buyers is identifying differences between good and bad LED products and realistic quoted lifetimes. Understanding that 'you get what you pay for' is a good start. Then think about the total project cost. Using high-quality reputable brand LEDs instead of unknown brands might mean a 20% difference in LED cost, but that translates into say a 2% difference in the overall project. That extra money is a small investment in minimising the likelihood of having to go back to site to repair or replace failed components after a month's operation, not to mention saving your reputation. Of course, the best way to ensure reliable LED systems is to specify performance parameters that qualify the system is fit for purpose, such as light output under specific conditions, longevity of components, service intervals and warranty periods.

"LEDs use up to 80% less power than neon (colour dependent) and generate much less carbon emissions. We recently prepared an 'emissions comparison' for a retail client on their 380 sites that showed a total reduction of 3078 tonnes of CO2, just by using LEDs instead of neon. Our calculator, at www.switchedoninnovations.com.au, can be used by anyone to identify how much energy and costs they can save using LEDs in signage.

"As LEDs produce very little heat, lower heat loads are imposed on air conditioning in internal applications. This is why GE white LED systems are now replacing fluoros in supermarket refrigerated cabinets, reducing lighting load by 37% and heat load on compressors by 8%. LEDs can also be switched off after hours, saving another 33%, which can't be done with fluoros as they may not restart the next day because of sub-zero temperatures."

Dodds adds: "LEDs operate at 100% brightness at low temperatures, whereas fluoros don't, so they're a better choice for retail fridges".

Future lighting technology

A new LED technology - organic LEDs (OLEDs) promises to revolutionise lighting and video displays like plasmas and LCDs. The technology uses special plastics that, when energised, emit light. These can be printed onto thin flexible surfaces to produce what's referred to as 'roll-up displays'. You've probably seen science fiction versions of this in the movies 'I Robot' and 'Minority Report'.

Several companies and research institutes are collaborating to develop OLED lighting technologies, their goal to commercially produce paper-thin light sources that generate 50 lm/W, consume much less energy than fluoros and have 10,000-hour lifetimes. Researchers predict OLEDs could realistically compete with fluoros in 10-15 years time, simply being attached flat to ceilings to light rooms. One fascinating innovation is a combination window/light source that uses transparent OLEDs working as windows by day and light sources by night.

OLED technology has been adopted from nature. Researchers found some organic materials are similar to semiconductors in transporting electric charges, where electricity flowing through the material is directly converted into light.

GE is currently developing OLED light sheets where it has so far achieved better efficiency than incandescents, aiming to better fluoro performance soon. GE also discovered that OLEDs have a reverse process, where light energy can be converted into electricity, the end application being a low-cost plastic photovoltaic sheet used as a roofing material to act as a solar energy source.

Osram is also developing OLED technology for general illumination, stating that it will develop polymer-based displays and illumination devices, focussing on creating the right conditions for high-volume production of large panel white light OLEDs.

In July 2006, Konica Minolta announced it had developed a 64 lm/W OLED lamp producing 1,000 cd/m2 luminance intended for general lighting, causing its share price to jump 6%, emphasising its potential to replace fluoros in the future.

Cambridge University further developed OLEDs to produce polymer LEDs (PLEDs) with the advantage of being solution-processable ie, ink-jet printable. I met with David Fyfe, chairman of Cambridge Display Technologies, the spin-off company formed to commercialise this discovery, when he was in Melbourne recently: "PLEDs were discovered in 1989 at Cambridge University where researchers found that LEDs could be made using conjugated polymers. A PLED consists of polymer material manufactured on a plastic substrate which emits light as a function of its electrical operation. It's very energy-efficient and lends itself to the creation of ultra-thin lighting displays operating at lower voltages. Large single-pixel displays can be used for lighting to replace fluorescent lamps.

"The simpler construction methodology results in cheaper, more robust display modules. Our focus is a solution which gives fast, reliable operation and high uptime. The manufacturing costs of high resolution PLED displays for example, when compared with LCDs of comparable volume and mature production processes, are expected to be 20-40% lower."

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