For too long, energy efficiency has been seen as yet another hair shirt in an age of austerity. The common assumption is that using less energy is the right thing to do for the environment but requires sacrifice — either financially or in quality of life.
This view could not be further from the truth. And the sooner we recognize energy efficiency as a valuable opportunity to be seized rather than a penance, the sooner we will realize the huge economic, social and environmental benefits that lay waiting to be unlocked.
When it comes to energy and climate change, the world faces a perfect storm — a storm that can be diffused, at least in part, by technologies that already exist. And yet in spite of these solutions, the world is not acting fast enough, and so risks sleepwalking toward disaster.
Cities today account for 54 percent of the global population and consume more than 70 percent of the world’s energy supply. With urban population predicted to nearly double by 2050, the impact of cities on energy consumption, natural resources and greenhouse gas emissions will rise further still. This means that we must focus on making cities more sustainable and grasp the solutions already at our disposal to increase energy efficiency.
Lighting is a case in point where huge savings — both in energy and money terms — can be made using existing technology, with tangible knock-on benefits.
Lighting accounts for 19 percent of all electricity used globally as we cling to outdated, inefficient systems. However, a universal switch across the world to LED lighting would slash this figure to 11 percent, drastically cutting energy costs and freeing up funds that could be spent in other areas — such as health and education — to stimulate economic growth and create jobs. In the United States, for every exajoule of energy saved, 60 new jobs can be created. Furthermore, it would also cut the world’s energy bill by more than $2 trillion by 2030.
Imagine in the US alone, if every outdoor light was switched to LED, the nation would save $6 billion, and the carbon reductions would be the same as taking 8.5 million cars off the roads.
While the contributions of every household can help make this a reality, the biggest gains hinge on the decisions of governments, policymakers, businesses and other large organizations. Given their scale, cities hold the key.
Street lighting is the obvious starting point. There are around 300 million street lights around the world — most of them in cities — and yet only about 10 percent are LEDs. Switching from conventional street lighting to LEDs can cut energy consumption by upwards of 40 percent.
But we can go even further still: by connecting LEDs to enable remote management — and provide light only on demand — energy savings of up to 80 percent can be achieved. Just 1 percent of the world’s street lights are currently connected, yet this is where the real gains can be made both in cutting energy consumption and costs and in improving the way cities function.
Connected lighting systems allow each street light to be remotely monitored and controlled individually, meaning city managers can tailor the lighting to suit the specific needs of each location. From a cost-saving perspective, this means lights can be dimmed or switched off at times and in places when they are not required. It also lets city managers see in real time where there are faults, thus reducing maintenance costs and improving operational efficiency.
These attributes also help cities run more smoothly, as controllers are able to raise lighting to improve visibility, such as in the event of road accidents, peak traffic periods, poor weather or outdoor events. This not only empowers cities to make smarter use of their lighting infrastructure but also delivers a greater sense of safety and security to citizens walking the streets after sunset.
Los Angeles, which two years ago began installing 140,000 LED street lights, reported energy savings of 63 percent and costs savings of around $8.7 million in 2014. Through mobile and cloud-based technologies, the city is now going one step further and making its existing LED infrastructure connected — a move that will enable energy savings of up to 80 percent.
New York is also replacing 250,000 street lights with LEDs — the largest project of its kind in the United States. By 2017, the city will be saving $14 million in energy and maintenance costs.
Projects like this must become the norm rather than the exception if cities are to make meaningful energy efficiency improvements. Currently, the switch to LED is happening at a rate of 3 percent per year, meaning it would take around 30 years before we witness universal adoption. However, by then, technology is likely to have improved, meaning that optimum efficiencies are still not being met.
We must set more ambitious goals for energy efficiency and implement processes to achieve them. As 25,000 delegates from governments, UN agencies and NGOs convene in Paris for COP21, world leaders must put a stake in the ground to drive faster, decisive action to combat climate change.
By refining business models and financing options governments, businesses and financial institutions working together can make switching to energy-efficient technologies easier for cities that lack the funds upfront. A move toward circular service models and incentives to stimulate shorter renovation cycles and upgrades would also mean that the best possible energy savings are realized as new technologies emerge.
Government regulatory bodies must be prepared to set high but attainable energy standards for buildings and lighting in streets and other public places. With the number of street lights around the world likely to hit 350 million by 2025, we need to work together to ensure that all new and existing street lights are LED — or of equivalent energy efficiency — by 2025.
We have a responsibility to see these pledges through, and the clock is ticking. It’s now up to us to break the inertia, stop squandering the opportunities we have and commit to an energy-efficient future.
Bill Bien is head of strategy and alliances for Philips Lighting. His focus is on driving the strategic direction of the business, building the brand and delivering a strong integrated marketing capability to underpin the company’s growth plans.
He has extensive international experience in strategy development in the technology sector and the Internet of Things, international marketing, services business development and corporate development. He holds a juris doctorate degree from Stanford Law School and a bachelor of arts degree in economics and Chinese from the Ohio State University.