City of Lights

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Cities and businesses want more light everywhere for commercial and safety reasons, but our decades-long saturation bombing of the darkness is blowing holes in electricity budgets, confusing and killing wildlife, and completely erasing our view of the stars, the inspiration for millennia of scientists, poets and explorers. “What was once a most common human experience has become most rare,” writes Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night, a book that assails the world’s unchecked light pollution.

The technology at the center of the shift is the LED, or light-emitting diode. LEDs are a break from the history of illumination. As solid-state semiconductors, they’re more akin to the processor in your smartphone than the lamp overhead. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Shanghai, Copenhagen and scores of other cities around the world are deploying LEDs in an attempt to solve most, if not all, of the problems created by inefficient traditional lamps.

LEDs cost three to four times more up front than traditional high-pressure streetlamps, but they last three to four times longer and produce two to three times more light per watt, delivering anywhere from 30% to 70% in annual electricity savings. Because they are digital chips, they will only get cheaper as the efficiencies of Moore’s Law roll on. And as electronic components they’re also far more programmable and connect more efficiently with radio and sensor chips to create citywide wireless networks to monitor crime, power outages and water main breaks and coordinate disaster relief.

The business opportunity in the great LED retrofit is enormous. Of the 140 million streetlights installed worldwide last year, only 19 million were LEDs, according to IHS Technology. By 2020 LEDs are expected to account for 100 million of the installed base of 155 million streetlights. Annual sales of LED streetlights will jump from $4.3 billion to $10.2 billion in the same time period.

Manufacturers used to count on selling replacement bulbs and components every four years, but LED lights come with a ten-year warranty, though many will last 15 to 20 years. Several manufacturers are focusing on selling software to control and monitor LED networks from a central command center or smartphones.Manufacturers and utilities are introducing financing schemes in which they assume the upfront installation costs and take a long-term share of the energy savings from the city.

“We are in the middle of a lighting revolution in the world. Lamps have been around since Edison, and in the past few years LED has changed the whole picture. The rules of the game have changed.”