Navigant Research Blog

Improved LED Christmas Lights Decorate the Tree

— December 9, 2014

As people around the globe dig through their closets this holiday season to locate strings of lights to decorate their trees and houses, a portion of those looking to decorate will decide that it is time to purchase new lights.  When those people arrive at stores or check out online retailers, they will find a wider selection of LED options than ever before.  Most of the traditional incandescent styles of string lights have been replaced with LEDs.  The question is: Will the average consumer make the upgrade?

One of the most important filters is quality.  A consumer may be interested in purchasing LEDs, but he or she first needs to know that the product will meet expectations.  Though LED decorative string lights have been available for a number of years, their quality has not always been up to par.  Early models were often quite dim.  For bare white lights, that dimness was not a large concern because the small points of light were still easily visible.  For styles with larger bulbs, and especially colored bulbs, the lack of brightness was a significant downside, as the lights hardly looked to be illuminated in any but the darkest conditions.  This shortcoming has been overcome.  Today’s LED string lights are every bit as bright as their incandescent predecessors.

On Flicker

A second quality issue that affected bare white lights was flicker.  Because LED chips can respond so quickly to changes in electrical current, alternating current (AC) power can actually cause them to turn on and off at the frequency of that power (50 to 60 times per second).  The blinking that results may not be noticeable when staring directly toward an LED light, but movement of the head or eyes can allow peripheral vision to detect the flicker.  When this occurs from dozens or hundreds of individual string lights, the effect can ruin the cheeriest holiday party.

Again, though, LED string lights on the market today have corrected this problem through improved driver technology, eliminating any perceptible flicker.  Indeed, depending on the style of light, LEDs can be virtually indistinguishable from their incandescent counterparts.

As with LED lighting for commercial and residential applications, prices for LED string lights have fallen greatly in recent years, but the LED version can still be 2 to 5 times as expensive as the comparable incandescent option.  While this range of price difference is similar to the premium paid for residential or commercial LED products, the business case for holiday lights may seem worse.

White Light, No Heat

In our recently published report, Energy Efficient Lighting for Commercial Markets, Navigant Research describes the various trends that are pushing the adoption of LED lighting and shows that upfront price parity is not a prerequisite to widespread adoption, especially if the payback period from energy savings is relatively short.  However, commercial lights operate for many more hours compared to decorative string lights, which may only be on for 6 to 8 hours per day, and for one month out of the year.

Other considerations will certainly influence consumers’ decisions as well.  Environmentally-minded purchasers might like to know that their holiday lights aren’t consuming any more electricity than necessary.  Those who are safety-conscious would surely appreciate that the lights resting on the dry needles of the trees inside their homes generate as little heat as possible, as LEDs do.  Overall, not every consumer will be ready to upgrade to LED string lights this year ‑ but the barriers are dropping fast and the future of Christmas decorations is almost certainly digital.

 

In Germany, a Small Town Becomes an Energy Dynamo

— December 8, 2014

A small town in Germany has become a symbol of what is possible for renewable energy and of the challenges it presents to the traditional utility model.  Wildpoldsried, in southern Bavaria, produces 500% more energy than it needs.  The town of approximately 2,600 people does this through solar, wind, biogas, and hydro systems and a healthy dose of government subsidies.

The transformation of the town’s energy use enabled it to produce all of its electricity well before the target date of 2020.  The excess energy, however, presented the regional utility, Allgäuer Überlandwerke GmbH (AÜW), with a problem: How to integrate the surplus renewable energy into the wider grid? So the utility partnered with Siemens on a project called the Integration of Regenerative Energy and Electrical Mobility (IRENE).  Using sensors throughout the town’s energy systems, operators are able to measure various levels of current, voltage, and frequency, and then a self-organizing automation system balances supply and demand to stabilize the grid.  In addition, local homeowners who have energy-producing systems (e.g., solar PV) are now prosumers, and each has a small device that controls how much power is sold back to the grid and at what minimum price, creating, in effect, a small-scale distributed energy resource market that feeds into the larger grid.

Cars, Solar PV, & the Grid

Wildpoldsried is not alone in attempts to modernize and create a more efficient grid.  In the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima disaster, officials in Japan have been wrestling with how to create more sustainable cities.  The Japan Smart City initiative includes projects in Yokohama, Toyota City, Keihanna (Kyoto), and Kitakyushu.  In Yokohama, for instance, one of the trials involves a home energy management system provided by Panasonic that integrates solar PV systems with battery storage.  In another trial, automaker Nissan has been testing a vehicle-to-home system, in which electrical power is furnished to homes from the batteries mounted in electric vehicles. (For more on these types of vehicle-grid integration projects, please attend Navigant Research’s free webinar, Electric Vehicles and the Grid, on February 10, 2015, at 2 p.m. ET.  Click here to register.)

Net Zero

Similarly, in the United States, California continues to be a bellwether for renewable energy and sustainability.  The state’s Zero Net Energy (ZNE) policy requires all new residential construction to be ZNE by 2020; a ZNE home is one that produces as much renewable, grid-tied energy onsite, such as from a solar PV system, as it uses during a calendar year.  Homebuilder KB Homes has constructed such a zero-net home in the Sacramento area that features a rooftop solar PV system with battery storage, an advanced greywater recycling system, triple-pane windows, and heavy duty insulation.  In the city of Lancaster, builders are offering similar types of ZNE homes as that city attempts to become a leader in alternative energy.

What Wildpoldsried and these other cities demonstrate is that through technology, regulations, and cooperation with utilities, a smarter and eco-friendly grid is possible.  For skeptics, these are real world examples of what is possible.  Yes, this can mean disruption of current business models.  But it does not have to mean destruction.  As noted in Navigant Research’s free white paper, Smart Grid: 10 Trends to Watch in 2015 and Beyond, these and other smart grid trends are expected to unfold in the coming years, and stakeholders must adapt to this transforming energy landscape.

 

International Innovation Thrives in the Bay Area

— December 8, 2014

Just over 69 years ago, the United Nations (UN) Charter was signed in San Francisco.  That Charter, bringing the UN into creation, has many social, cultural, and humanitarian directives, as well as articles aimed at “international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic character.”  That spirit of cooperation is alive in San Francisco, as evidenced by many international innovation showcases that aim to spur collaboration between the United States and other countries, spread some of the startup magic found across the Bay Area, and simply showcase innovation around the globe.

For example, the German government helps sponsor the German Accelerator in both Silicon Valley and New York.  Its upcoming Captivate event is a startup pitch fest that brings German and German-American funders and entrepreneurs together with brief company pitch sessions.  The Japan Society of Northern California is sponsoring its annual Innovation Showcase in early 2015 to highlight Japanese startups and award the title of “Emerging Leader” to one Japanese and one American entrepreneur whose companies are relevant to both U.S. and Japanese innovation.  The City of San Francisco itself helps spur economic connections with China through its ChinaSF program.  ChinaSF leaders say the program has recruited over 50 companies from the Bay Area to China and created more than 300 jobs since 2008.

The Intelligent Factory

The most recent of these events was the California France Forum on Energy Efficiency Technologies, held in late November in San Francisco.  Focused on manufacturing and the smart factory concept, where IT is deeply integrated into the energy performance of industrial facilities, the forum was sponsored by Prime, a Paris-based high tech incubator, and French energy major EDF.  I spoke on a panel that examined the challenges and potential role of industrial energy management (see Navigant Research’s report, Industrial Energy Management Systems), along with Ethan Rogers of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), who discussed the potential energy savings in the industrial sector.

Specifically, Rogers identified ACEEE’s scenario-based modeling that determined that the U.S. industrial sector could save between $7 billion and $25 billion in annual energy costs by 2035 through energy efficiency gains.  Also on the panel was Arnaud Legrand, CEO of Energiency, a spinoff from Orange/France Telecom that aims to use big data analysis to improve industrial energy use through a software as a service-based solution, and Michel Morvan, co-founder of CoSMo Company.

CoSMo’s approach, based in the study of complex systems, is to use simulation to understand the regimes of behavior of industrial systems, accounting for supply chain, energy uses, workforce, and other inputs.  Morvan views the factory as a system of systems, and his company has developed approaches to simulate the core elements as well as the interconnections between the systems.  In this model, the goal is full energy optimization.  CoSMo is set to fully launch in mid-2015.

 

Green Button Pushes Useful Usage Data

— December 3, 2014

The installation of advanced metering infrastructure is helping to transform the U.S. utility industry.  While over 43 million advanced meters have been installed, most electricity consumers have seen few benefits from the new device on their property.  Recently, the government has been making an effort to improve the accessibility of data from advanced meters.

The Green Button Initiative is an industry-led effort developed in response to the federal call-to-action to provide utility customers with easy and secure access to their electricity usage data in a user-friendly format.  A key focus of Green Button is standardizing electricity usage data; this will allow many stakeholders to use the data without the burden of converting proprietary formats.  Energy consumers, third-party software/application developers, public institutions, energy efficiency organizations, and utilities/energy service providers will all benefit from increased visibility of detailed electricity consumption data.

Developers of software and applications to help consumers understand and reduce their electricity consumption may have the most to gain.  Many advanced systems to manage energy use in buildings are already in operation; these will only be improved by easy access to more granular data from utilities.  Some solutions that can take advantage of this newly available data are discussed in Navigant Research’s report, Building Energy Management Systems

Tip of the Iceberg

Despite successful programs with many utilities, the Green Button Initiative has only scratched the surface of its full potential.  To date, at least 50 utilities have implemented the program, with a few dozen more committed.  Among the participating utilities, the amount of data available and the support provided to customers varies greatly.  In fact, some utilities are only providing monthly meter readings to their customers through Green Button.  This information has generally been available to customers online for years, and it does not provide enough new detail to enable many behavioral changes.

What’s more, many utilities are not actively promoting the availability of this data or helping their customers understand how to interpret the information.  Further collaboration between utilities and industry stakeholders is required, and a more developed app marketplace will be crucial to Green Button’s success.

Competitive Solutions

A major focus of the Green Button Initiative is to facilitate the development of third-party software programs and applications that use utility data to provide consumers with an easily understandable view of their consumption.  One interesting application is wotz, developed by a group of graduate students at the University of California, Irvine.  This application runs in a web browser and provides a simple to use, graphically pleasing interface to view and understand energy consumption over time.

Wotz relates household electricity use to more easily understood terms, such as a certain number of MacBook charges.  The program also includes challenges with guidance to reduce consumption over time and can be connected with Facebook to share results and benchmark against friends.

Another program utilizing Green Button-based data takes the idea of benchmarking and social media-based energy competitions even further.  Simple Energy, based in Boulder, Colorado, has a similar program with easy visualization and also features a community leaderboard that allows users to see how they stack up with their neighbors – as well as electricity consumers around the world.

 

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