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Seeing Green in LEDs: Technology, Efficiency Driving Increased Sales of Lights

6 min read

The skyline in downtown Little Rock has taken on new hues.

Looking up at the Union Plaza Building at 124 W. Capitol Ave., passersby can see shades of red and blue changing intermittently on the structure’s white facade. On any given night the colors may also rotate in recognition of a particular holiday or event.

But aesthetics aside, the new LED light display — a project involving Curtis Stout Inc., All Electric Supply Inc. of Little Rock and Entergy — also has the building’s manager seeing green.

The decorative installation, which is visible to anyone traveling on Interstate 30 or walking downtown at night, is the latest in a series of energy efficiency projects that allow businesses to cash in by making short-term investments in lighting.

Those projects — frequently supported by incentives from utility companies — have the potential to save thousands of dollars, if not millions, in energy and maintenance costs.

As the price of LED lighting has declined in recent years and energy efficiency programs can cover a chunk of the price for installation, more attention has turned to retrofitting buildings and factories.

Gaining Ground

Light-emitting diodes — more commonly known as LEDs — have grown in popularity around the country as costs have declined and more options have become available.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, which has studied the market penetration of LEDs since 2002, the technology involved in LED lighting has improved dramatically in just the past few years. That, in turn, is driving its adoption.

Forecasts released last year show the market penetration for LEDs in the “building exterior submarket” growing from 7 percent in 2013 to 17 percent this year and up to 99 percent by 2030.

The department estimates that LED lighting in all categories will reduce lighting energy consumption in the country by 15 percent in 2020 and 40 percent in 2030. In total, adoption of LEDs is expected to save 261 terawatt-hours in 2030. A terawatt-hour is 1 billion kilowatt hours, and 261 of them would equal the total energy consumption of nearly 24 million households.

Jordan Beard, the president of All Electric Supply, which worked on the Union Plaza project, said he has seen that increased demand for LEDs firsthand.

Sales of LEDs have jumped in recent years to between 30 and 35 percent of his company’s lighting sales in 2013 and “easily over half” last year.

Beard said he expects that trend to continue with the lights at an economical price.

“A lot of folks want to talk about LEDs being green, which is a good topic because it does save energy, … but I think what we’ve seen in the past is the emotional appeal of it being green really only works when the economics are there to support it as well.

“But LEDs have hit the price point now — and I think that’s what’s accelerating a lot of its growth — the LED price point now is at a point where economically it makes a lot of sense,” Beard said.

One of the more public uses of LED displays in the city is the River Lights in the Rock installation on three bridges crossing the Arkansas River downtown. That display, which can be programmed to change colors and pulsate, went online in late 2013 and was funded in part by a $2 million donation by Entergy.

Paul James designed the Union Plaza project for Curtis Stout Inc. of Little Rock, a representative of lighting, electrical and utility products, automation controls and audiovisual equipment. James said the company has wrapped up or is nearing completion on several other LED projects from within the last year, including installing all-LED lighting at the Cypress Plaza Building in Little Rock and LEDs and fluorescents at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds.

James said the lights are more consistent than traditional ones and that LEDs can be ordered in whatever color the previous lights created.

Jennifer Lester, the senior property manager at Union Plaza, said in an email that she was drawn to LEDs because of the life expectancy of the bulbs and the cost savings that would result in using them.

“We never considered replacing the bulbs with anything other than LEDs,” Lester said.

Window Washers

One of the first orders of business in replacing the lights on the Union Plaza building was answering the question of how to get to them.

Each fixture was bolted from the outside of the building through to the penthouse maintenance area, and accessing them required hanging off the building.

Lester said in an interview that the building’s engineer, Carl Jones, came up with the idea of using the window washers to change out the fixtures while doing their normal work outside the building.

After running the idea by the company, City Wide Building Services Inc. of Dallas, the window washers did a test run and found the idea was workable. The full installation was later completed in five days while the company carried out its usual washing.

The lights can emit nearly any color and can perform programs entered into a computer.

James, the Curtis Stout designer, said the installation can mimic the building’s old lights or “do something outrageous and new.” The design kept the original fixture locations but replaced the old 400-watt high-pressure sodium lamps with 270-watt fixtures and the 250-watt fixtures with 60 watts, reducing the energy consumption by more than half, he said.

James said the flexibility the display offers and its prominence in the downtown skyline make it stand out among the other projects he’s worked on.

“This has certainly been the most interesting project that I’ve done be-cause of the color changing and the visibility of it. We’ve done a lot of efficiency projects that we’re very proud of, but this one, because of its visibility, is definitely one of my favorites,” James said.

Efficiency Programs Expand

John Bethel, executive director of the Arkansas Public Service Commission, said all of the state’s utilities have some form of energy efficiency program overseen by the commission.

The commission began developing rules to build a framework for the programs in 2006, and the first pilot programs became available in November 2007.

But it wasn’t until 2010 that the utilities presented the commission with comprehensive programs, which are now evaluated and modified to benefit ratepayers, Bethel said. The commission is seeing growth in the number of customers participating in the energy efficiency programs, as well as the total savings, Bethel said.

According to Entergy’s 2013 annual report on energy efficiency that was submitted to the commission, the utility’s energy savings, across all its programs, totaled 195,772 megawatt-hours, or 3.6 times the energy savings in 2011.

By comparison, the average American household uses 10.8 megawatt-hours of electricity in a year.

As the state’s largest electric utility, Entergy also runs a substantial commercial and industrial energy efficiency program.

“It currently is a significant program, and many of the offerings under that program are custom offerings to the customer. The utility will evaluate that customer’s needs and will develop an offering that may include rebates for the purchase of equipment or that sort of thing that would be specific to that customer,” Bethel said.

Gabe Munoz, the project manager for Entergy’s commercial and industrial energy efficiency programs, said the utility worked on more than 2,000 projects last year with a range of business types. He said there has been more interest from “average Joe” businesses, which learn about the rebates and want to benefit from them.

Munoz said LED lighting is “becoming very popular” and that demand for the lights is “increasing dramatically.” He said the bulbs are more efficient than older lighting and last longer, but sometimes cost up to four times as much as CFLs.

“There’s not LEDs for every type of use, so even though LEDs are popular, as long as we can save energy on the different type of lights [we will use a different type]. A lot of these facilities still have lighting that dates back to the ’60s,” Munoz said.

While the details of Union Plaza project’s costs were not disclosed, Lester said she expects to break even on the investment in four years. That’s despite the fact that the lights used on the exterior project did not qualify for a rebate from Entergy because the lights were not on an approved list.

The property manager said the project will result in savings of $8,685 per year in energy costs and about $13,500 per year in maintenance costs.

Lester said a project on the interior of the building did qualify for rebates. That energy efficiency project wrapped up around the same time as the exterior late last year and earned the building’s owners $84,000 in rebates, she said.

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