Lighting – The Next Great Software Industry

By Danny Yu, CEO of Daintree Networks

It sounds like the beginning of a terrible joke: how much software does it take to screw in a light bulb?  But as intelligent buildings have become less a vision of the future and more a present-day reality, this combination of lighting and software is no laughing matter. In fact, it’s fast becoming big business – and saving energy and money around the world.

Like many industries, lighting has been transformed by the introduction of digital capabilities. The rapid growth of LEDs is a prime example of this trend, as more efficient digital components provide more (and better) light for longer, at a lower cost. But digital intelligence is not just being introduced at the source of the light – it’s also pervading the way lights are used.

The field of lighting controls is dedicated to making lighting usage more intelligent – one of the most common examples is lights that dim or turn themselves off all together when they’re not needed. This is certainly not a new idea; many of us are already accustomed to occupancy sensors that automate the lights in our offices and homes. Today’s systems take it to the next level, adding much more sophistication and turning a building’s lights into a full-fledged network.

Why would you want your lights to be networked? Well, it all comes back to energy usage and financial savings. Lighting is the largest user of electricity in buildings – up to about 40 percent – and much of that is waste. It’s easy enough to control the lighting in a single room, but in a large building with thousands of light fixtures, how do you manage lighting to best save energy and money? As is so often said in the cleantech world, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. And you can’t measure or manage lighting without networking.

Think of how all of the Wi-Fi devices in your home can be accessed or managed through your computer. Lighting networks are much the same, providing centralized access to control a building’s lighting (and in some cases, other building systems.) These lighting control systems can be hard-wired, or, as is the case with many of the emerging solutions, wireless. Just as you apply security policies to your Wi-Fi network at home, you can apply energy policies to a lighting network.

Through networked lighting systems, building owners and facilities managers are applying advanced strategies and discovering new applications to save energy and money. A customer in the cold storage industry recently ran an experiment in a storage room that was frequently being used but only for short periods of time. They found that if the lights stay on for 10 minutes when someone enters the room, energy is being wasted, but if the lights only stay on for 30 seconds, they run the risk of a worker being caught in the dark. By finding the happy medium and then using software to replicate it across other similar areas, they’ve saved tremendous energy and kept workers productive.

Much of the intelligence in today’s lighting takes place behind the scenes. Smart systems can analyze the current ambient light level, occupancy data, manual settings, time of day, pre-set personal preferences, Demand Response settings and other inputs, and apply an algorithm to assign the right light level for each user. These advances save energy and keep costs low by eliminating waste, while increasing the comfort level for the individual by creating a more personalized lighting environment.

All of this intelligence doesn’t happen in a vacuum – it’s based on increasingly sophisticated software. And, like any good network, some level of network management is required. Add in wireless technology, ongoing analysis of energy usage data, and Demand Response signals from utilities, and the software requirements start to stack up.

The upshot is that software is becoming integral to the way lighting is installed and used within buildings. Today’s facility manager is just as likely to be managing a building’s energy systems from a software interface as from a physical controller. Lighting has historically lagged behind other building systems, but the industry is catching up – fast. A small set of venture-funded startups in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are leading the charge, along with a few forward-thinking lighting and building industry leaders.

As is the case in so many industries that have rapidly modernized, from our phones to our cars, software is transformative. It gives us more control, new capabilities, and extends the definition of what that product (phone, car, light, etc.) means to its user. In the case of lighting, software is making our buildings greener and more intelligent about their energy use. In other words, in today’s buildings it does take software to screw in a light bulb – no joke.

image: nhuisman via Flickr creative commons license

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