A new report finds that the market for light-emitting diodes (LEDs) is set to explode in the next ten years, surpassing even compact fluorescent lightbulbs as the ultimate energy-efficient lighting option.
By 2020, LEDs will cover 46 percent of the $4.4 billion U.S. market for lamps in the commercial, industrial and outdoor stationary sectors, driven by the overall push toward energy efficiency, according to a study released this week by Pike Research, a Boulder, Colo. cleantech market-research firm. That’s a big jump, considering that LEDs now capture only two percent of the lighting market, according to estimates.
"As energy efficiency becomes increasingly important for controlling costs, improving energy independence, and reducing environmental impacts, governments and organizations have looked to lighting as the ‘low hanging fruit’ of energy efficiency," the study states.
Currently, lighting accounts for 17.5 percent of the world’s electricity consumption, and $40 billion of the electricity bill in the United States, which makes it full of potential for energy and cost savings. While fluorescents have been justly praised for offering greater efficiency than incandescent bulbs, LEDs have been shown to be more efficient and to last longer than any other lighting source on the market, making them the logical next step.
LED lightbulbs typically last 50,000 hours — twice as long as fluorescents — and are up to twice as efficient as fluorescents, which are four to six times more efficient than incandescents. Further, unlike fluorescent or incandescent bulbs, LED tubes do not get especially hot.
According to a 2009 report released by market research group GigaOmPro, incandescent bulbs only convert about 4 to 6 percent of the energy they receive into light; the rest is wasted as heat. While fluorescent bulbs can raise the temperature in a room by up to two degrees, resulting in increased cooling load for buildings, LEDs don’t raise the temperature at all.
"Growth rates [for LEDs] have been in the double digits and we don’t anticipate growth to slow,," writes analyst Katherine Austin in the GigaOm report.
"With a new administration in the U.S. White House, a new energy secretary, and a new focus on energy efficiency, market conditions for are very likely to remain positive. Other countries, especially China, Korea and Japan, share this focus. By 2012, the market for LEDs in general lighting applications could climb as high as $10 billion, although in light of the recent economic downturn, we expect that $4-5 billion may be more realistic."
In addition to their high efficiency and long lifespan, LEDs also do not require ballast and do not contain toxic mercury, which means disposing of them when they die poses fewer health and environmental hazards.
LEDs are also favored by the Department of Energy, which has been investing heavily in advancing the technology over the last ten years. The European Union is currently phasing out the use of incandescent bulbs, which the U.S. will do in 2012, leaving only fluorescents and LEDs left as the lighting options.
Cost is Chief Barrier
Despite the positive forecast, there remain short-term financial and technological obstacles to market success for LEDs, with the biggest problem being price.
LED tubes cost anywhere from $50 to $100, compared to $2 to $10 for fluorescents. The other roadblock frequently cited by electrical engineers and facilities managers is brightness; they are concerned occupants will complain that the lights are not bright enough. Both problems are being addressed by LED manufacturers, which are researching ways to increase the luminance of LEDs and cut costs.
In 2008, for instance, researchers at Purdue University found a way to replace the expensive standard substrate used in LED production — sapphire — with low-cost, metal-coated silicon wafers. The switch would greatly reduce the cost of LED manufacturing, assuming another silicon shortage does not come along.
Even without a cost breakthrough, though, reports suggest that paying more for LEDs would be worth it. In a recent LED-to-fluorescent comparison, Greentech Media found that while LEDs are clearly more expensive at first, they are far more cost-effective in the long run.
Comparing an installation of 40 LEDs and 40 fluorescent tubes, the report found that in the first year it would cost $3,069 for the energy and initial purchase of LEDs, while the fluorescent tubes would cost $1,071. Given that every year thereafter the energy costs of the LED tubes would be lower than fluorescents — $269 versus $431 — the analysis found that after 16 years the LEDs offered a six percent cost savings.
Still, as with most green building products, the long-term cost savings of LEDs won’t necessarily convince building owners right away. It’s likely to take awhile for them to warm up to the idea that they should increase their lighting budget by a few thousand dollars, even if it means reducing their energy bills.
In the meantime, during the ten years the study predicts it will take for LEDs to overcome obstacles to their adoption, fluorescents will continue to replace incandescents, the authors say. To fill that future market demand, companies are emerging with controllers and sensors to help boost the efficiency of flourescent bulbs.
Cavet: ‘Save Energy and Money Now’
One such firm is the venture-backed Toronto company Cavet Technologies, which recently launched its LumiSmart Intelligent Controller, a device that connects directly to lighting circuits and automatically adjusts voltages to improve efficiency.
With its ‘save energy and money now’ approach, Cavet is likely to be appealing to building owners.
"A 100,000 square foot property can be outfitted with LumiSmart in one afternoon and benefit from an immediate savings of 30 percent with an ROI payback period of between 12 to 24 months," Albert Behr, president and CEO of Cavet Technologies, told SolveClimate.
According to the company, a single LumiSmart ILC can manage lighting loads of up to 6.9 kilowatts, or around 130 fluorescent lights. The product provides power savings by altering the power waveform and then applying what Cavet calls an "adaptive power factor correction." By inserting on-off pulses into the sine wave, LumiSmart is able to dramatically reduce electrical consumption with minimal impact on lighting levels.
So far, Cavet has caught the eye of venture capitalists and as-yet-unnamed utilities in Canada, Europe and the U.S., all eager to test the company’s controller. It also won praise from cleantech analyst Dallas Kachan, former managing director of The Cleantech Group, who released a positive assessment of the company via his market research firm, Kachan & Co, last week.
The key benefit of Cavet’s controller, analysts say, is that it is relatively inexpensive at $2,000 per controller and is quick and easy to install. While it still needs to be installed by an electrician, it’s about as plug-and-play as such a device gets, the company says.
"There are other lighting controllers, but they generally take a lot of time and money to install, so the more lights an organization has, the more expensive these other solutions are," Kachan says in the company’s launch video.
The LumiSmart product has been in trials throughout Canada and Europe during the last year, including at the Canadian headquarters of electronics manufacturer Celestica, which is both making and testing the product.
At the LumiSmart product launch earlier this month, Cavet executives showed on stage how their product had delivered a 40 percent energy savings at the manufacturing facility.
Later this year, the firm plans to release a related demand-and-response product, which will allow property managers and utilities to set building lighting systems to automatically power on and off, and dim, according to the availability and price of electricity.
Others Hedging Their Bets Elsewhere
While Cavet is focused for the time being on making fluorescents more efficient, another smart lighting company, Siemens spin-off EnOcean, is hedging its bets by focusing on controlling and automating lighting—no matter the light source.
EnOcean’s sensors, transmitters and controllers have ultra-low energy requirements, allowing them to run off of so-called "harvested energy" from ambient light, sunlight and electrical cables.
For its part, U.S. industrial giant General Electric has decided that it’s going to be ready and waiting when the residential LED market blows up. The company recently announced the late 2010 or early 2011 release of its LED bulb shaped like an old-fashioned incandescent bulb. Although GE is not the first company to figure out how to make LEDs more "bulb-like." the fact that the inventor of the bulb is making an LED version is big news.
GE’s bulb is guaranteed to last 17 years and consume only nine watts of power, delivering a 77 percent energy savings over incandescent bulbs.
Early adopters will likely rush out to buy the bulb, but with a price tag of $40 to $50 each, the costs could remain a barrier to widespread market penetration.