Navigant Research Blog

LED Revolution Rises in the West

Bob Gohn — March 17, 2013

The market for light-emitting diodes (LEDs) has reached the turning point from “promising technology” to “practical mainstream solution.”  The replacement of 125-plus years of vacuum tube lighting by LEDs seems as inevitable as the transition from TV tubes to flat screen LED monitors, though it won’t happen nearly as quickly.  But even as we witness this shift, I wonder if we really perceive the revolution taking place.

That revolution was evident at last month’s Strategies in Light conference, in Santa Clara, which focused on LED  technologies and, more specifically, LEDs applied to lighting applications.  Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of the invention of the visible LED, the program included an awards ceremony honoring industry pioneers Nick Holonyak Jr., M. George Craford, Roland Haitz, and Shuji Nakamura.  It was a rare window into history.

The conference also demonstrated that LED lighting R&D activity is overwhelmingly focused on achieving some degree of parity with conventional lighting in terms of light quality and cost, while still delivering on the energy efficiency and long life-cycle potential of LEDs.  Just as anyone seeking “plain white paint” is confronted by thousands of options at their neighborhood paint shop, “white light” is far from a neutral, standard attribute for lighting.  How a given light source’s color temperature maps against the standard Planck curve is just the beginning of a light quality assessment.  The facts are that LED lighting can be made very efficient, have good light quality, last a very long time, and be cost-effective.  But it’s exceedingly rare that all four of these goals are met simultaneously in a given application. Hence there’s much work to be done, justifying the focus on achieving parity and conventional lamp replacement.

Beyond Tubes

Beyond the focus on parity and replacement, however, are opportunities that are potentially much more transformative. Although the transistor radios of my youth seemed a major innovation compared with the vacuum-tube radios of a decade earlier, the real power of transistors came in the form of integrated circuits that unleashed a much larger information and communications revolution.  In a presentation titled “The Next Evolution of Lighting,” Brad Koerner, director of experience design at Philips Lighting, showed how LEDs are ushering in a new paradigm for lighting design, controllability, and occupant experience.  LED lighting form factors that mimic fluorescent tubes might make sense for today’s lamp replacement market, but they’ll probably look silly in retrospect when lighting is integrated into the very surfaces of next-generation buildings.  Today’s lighting programmability essentially means on, off, or dim – but what happens when lighting color temperature is also programmable, allowing sunlight’s subtle differences by time of day, season, or geographic location to be carried indoors to our work and living spaces?

We are only at the cusp of these revolutions today.  In the meantime, all those concerned with smart buildings, from architects to facility managers, should balance their healthy skepticism with a dreamer’s wonder at what may soon be.

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