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Bill Roth headshot

Autonomous LED Lighting Is Driving a Smart Building Revolution

By Bill Roth

Our homes and offices are now the dumbest thing in our lives. We can talk to our smartphones. A growing number of our cars can park themselves. But our buildings just sit there making us do the work of running them.

That is about to radically change. Our buildings are on the cusp of a digital transformation. Surprisingly, it is the humble lightbulb that will be the enabling disruptive technology.

Dawn of autonomous (and smart) lighting

In the 20th century, we used electric lights for lighting. Edison-era lightbulbs used electricity to heat a wire or gas to generate light (and a lot of heat). It required human action to turn on or off.

LEDs are semiconductor-based technology. They use electricity to excite a diode that then emits light (light emitting diode or LED). Because LEDs use so little electricity, they can be hooked up to a building’s electricity supply by using computer ethernet cables rather than electrical wiring. Or LED light designs can integrate Wi-Fi technology just like our smartphones. Either through cable or a Wi-Fi “mesh,” an LED light system can be a digital communications pathway.

This enables LED lighting systems to serve as a connectivity link between sensors, things, smart applications, artificial intelligence programming and human wearables. The disruptive result will be a lighting system that delivers both light and artificial intelligence for running our buildings.

Today’s technology is making lighting better

“Dumb” LED lighting is massively displacing Edison-era lighting because it saves money by using less electricity.

The next technology step is the mass adoption of autonomous LEDs. This next generation of smarter LED lighting will deliver these additional cost savings and productivity enhancements:

  1. “Thinking like humans.” For example, they will dim or turn off next to windows during a sunny day, or they will turn on and off as a night security guard walks by. They will adjust light levels based on the number of people in a room and where they are sitting.

  2. Enhanced shopping experience. They will adjust light levels and richness based on where a customer is standing in relation to a product display.

  3. Increased cost savings. More and more utilities are adopting time of use pricing. During higher price time periods, autonomous LED lighting systems will save money by responding to higher prices with reduced lighting in non-critical areas like halls or stairwells.

But all of this is still a value proposition tied to making lighting better. The final leap will be the disruptive step of making our buildings smart.

The emergence of smart autonomous buildings

The smart autonomous building is the disruptive final step that will reshape how buildings are operated. These buildings will relate not to things but people. For example, they will proactively respond to everything from work associates’ birthdays, to a medical emergency or a security breach.

Smart autonomous buildings will integrate these three technologies to reshape our work and life experience:

  1. Sensors. Everything and everyone will have sensors. The dramatic fall in sensor prices makes this affordable. Every light, appliance, air conditioner, computer, and human being will have one or more sensors.

  2. LEDs create a connectivity highway between sensors and AI. LED lighting will form a connectivity bridge to a building’s sensors and human wearables, including smartphones. It will also be the connectivity path between sensors and a building’s artificial intelligence programming.

  3. Artificial intelligence. Today’s buildings have energy management systems. They are electrical/mechanical systems set to respond to limited operating variables. AI will use sensor input to autonomously operate a building in response to human expectations. AI will “learn” how to optimize a building for human satisfaction, cost management and environmental impacts. Think “Vicki” in iRobot, hopefully without her anxiety.

Smart autonomous buildings hold the potential to be a game-changer for human and planet health. These are the technologies that will enable Zero Net Energy buildings that annually source as much renewable energy as the building consumes. They hold the potential to eliminate a building’s carbon emissions footprint. They will also monitor, and enhance, indoor air quality. The net result will be a healthier planet -- and healthier people achieving increased productivity.

Smart buildings will achieve these results at an optimized cost. They will be able to optimize for energy price by arbitraging between the building’s onsite renewable generation, the building’s batteries, buying from a community solar or wind provider, or buying from the grid. They will make money by selling renewable energy to other smart buildings once utilities and regulators finally align with the cost savings, emissions reduction and reliability advantages of distributed generation.

Cree pioneering autonomous lighting

Headquartered in North Carolina, Cree is an LED lighting company that is pioneering the smart building future with plug-and-play autonomous lighting systems. Their latest product launch enables a complex LED lighting system to be set up for operation through the push of just one button.

In the following exclusive interview, Cree VP Greg Merritt outlines how close LED smart technology is to mass adoption. Greg also speaks to how autonomous smart lighting will reshape our buildings and your life.


Image credit: Bill Roth

Bill Roth headshot

Bill Roth is a cleantech business pioneer having led teams that developed the first hydrogen fueled Prius and a utility scale, non-thermal solar power plant. Using his CEO and senior officer experiences, Roth has coached hundreds of CEOs and business owners on how to develop and implement projects that win customers and cut costs while reducing environmental impacts. As a professional economist, Roth has written numerous books including his best selling The Secret Green Sauce (available on Amazon) that profiles proven sustainable best practices in pricing, marketing and operations. His most recent book, The Boomer Generation Diet (available on Amazon) profiles his humorous personal story on how he used sustainable best practices to lose 40 pounds and still enjoy Happy Hour!

Read more stories by Bill Roth