Canadian technology gives IT departments the power

One Monday morning the lights came on as usual in the first floor of EDS Corp’s Plano, Texas offices – but it was the first time the IT department – not facilities – flipped the on-switch in a bid to save money on the electric bill.

A new pilot started up Feb. 18 saw 56 fluorescent light fixtures light up EDS cubicles and conference rooms.

Not only were the new lights dimmable, but they were each assigned a unique IP address, and could be controlled over the office network.

Sensors detect how much light stream through the windows, whether there are people around, and adjust the light output accordingly. The dynamic lighting management system comes from Oakville, Ont.-based Fifth Light Technology.

“The premise is most buildings are over lit, and there’s a significant opportunity to reduce the energy consumed by a building,” says J. Bruce Pope, chief business development officer, Fifth Light. “It’s driven by information technology.”

“The whole thing [exceeds] our expectations,” says Dale Hoenshell, global environmental sustainability manager at EDS. It’s amazing “how over-lit our building really is.”

Throwing  light on cost-savings

In the EDS Toronto office, the system has saved 37 per cent off the electricity bill over each of the past two years, Pope says. They’re on their way to paying back the initial investment on installing the system.

Fifth Light’s system costs about $2 to $3 per square foot to install, depending on the type of building and lighting system currently in place.

Resulting electric savings will be 50 – 60 cents per square foot a year, Pope adds.

“You can pay this out in three to five years” based on operational cost savings, he says.

The cost-savings equation adds up particularly well for large enterprises that own office towers or multiple campuses, says Aaron Hay, research consultant with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group.

“Beyond the payback, you’re going to reduce your carbon emissions from day one,” he adds.

Fifth Light’s Dimmable Addressable Lighting Interface (DALI) is a unique ballast with an embedded computer that takes orders from a central command point, and sends feedback information, Pope says.

A Web-based control console provides control over the lights in multiple buildings regardless of location, he adds.

Feedback metrics are also valuable to a business looking to track the project’s payoff.

“We can set up a program that will nail your budget right on the nose,” Pope says.

The control system is potentially accessible by a wide range of employees – from the individual IT worker, right up to the IT manager overseeing an entire company.

“It’s the iPhone of lighting,” Hoenshell says. “You have unbelievable flexibility [using] software to rearrange or illuminate, based on need.”

The system is a shining example of what companies stand to gain when their IT and facilities departments start to communicate, says Info-Tech’s Hay.

A necessary alliance, as electricity costs are on the rise, and penalties for emitting carbon dioxide on the horizon.

The looming electricity crunch

There is going to be increased demand for energy and there’s not going to be more power plants to catch up with it,” Hay says.

That means demand reduction is key.

Electricity demand south of the border is rising one to two per cent a year, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In areas that can’t generate enough to meet demand, like California, peak rates can hit 16 cents per kW.

Despite being resource rich, Canada is not immune from rising energy costs.

Case in point is the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority applying at the end of January to raise the price of their service charges by about $5 a bill.

In the east part of the country, Ontario’s electricity rates have gone from 4.3 cents per kWh in 2003 to 5.3 cents per kWh in 2007 (for the first 750 kWh for non-residential buildings).

“If your neighbour has 10 times the population and 10 times the electricity demand as you, you have reason to be concerned,” Hay says.

Lighting accounts for 30 to 60 per cent of a building’s electricity bill, Pope estimates. Those watts also translate directly into greenhouse gas emissions as a result of an office’s existence.

Take soaring electricity bills and add a potential carbon tax that makes emitters pay more – B.C. residents will face one starting in July – and you’ve got a recipe to catch the attention of most businesses, according to Jeff Wacker, director of strategy for EDS and member of the World Futurists Society.

Businesses should be looking to cut back on power use dramatically. Fifth Light’s system can do that.

“You end up with a system of light  that is constantly and dynamically balancing the light to be optimal, and is in effect reducing the consumption of lighting in an office building,” Wacker says.

EDS will now recommend Fifth Light to their customers looking to save energy and to colour their company a deeper shade of green. There are more potential spin-off benefits, as well.

Not too bright, but just right

It’s hot in Texas. As a result, air conditioning is a big load on the electric bill.

“Lighting is a big load on our air conditioning system, which in Texas is a big deal,” Hoenshell says.

By cutting heat generated by lights, you cut the amount of energy needed to cool your building, Hay points out. Because the lights are optimized to turn on only when and at the intensity they need to, businesses will enjoy a longer lifecycle before replacing them.

“Instead of a building needing to re-lamp every two years, they can do it every four years,” because the ballasts will last twice as long, Pope says. This also helps reduce the amount of junk your company carts to the local landfill.

Aside from saving on the bottom line and doing worldly good, people just enjoy extra comfort as a result of being able to control their lighting environment, Wacker says. The lights can be dimmed to any percentage of their maximum brightness.

Fifth Light’s perspective is each person is an office may have different lighting preference. A worker sitting at a computer will need different lighting compared to a person poring over balance sheets on paper, Pope says.

Another hidden benefit, he says, is reduction of electromagnetic distortion that can wreak havoc with wireless devices, and even give some people headaches.

“Your radio doesn’t get static and your wireless devices don’t get interference.”

 

Improving Edison’s invention

A Canadian fathered light-bulb inventor Thomas Edison.

Now two other Canadians have improved on Edison’s invention to create the technology behind Fifth Light.

Hamilton-based McMaster University professor Joseph Dableh had a light bulb go off in his head when he was looking for a way to dim lights effectively for commercial use. Dableh and his mentor, Barna Szabados invented the ability to dim fluorescent lights.

They patented the technology and continued to develop the ballasts with an imprinted circuit board to interface with management software. The electricity industry gurus are still with Fifth Light – Dableh as its president and CEO, and Szabados as the vice-president of research and development.

With offices now starting to take advantage of their technology, Pope encourages those undertaking the project to cut a deal with their local utility.

Toronto Hydro invites building owners to notify them of projects on their Web site.

B.C. Hydro has a similar program on the west coast. These utilities offer incentives to save energy so they can aggregate it and sell it back to a higher power authority.

“There’s no question the cost savings will certainly pay out,” Hay says. He estimates companies will have to wait five years at most to recoup the initial expense on such a technology.

Lighting management systems may be the first to herald the start of a new trend, Hay predicts – one in which IT is harnessed to help businesses save money with emerging sustainable technologies.

“We can use advanced technology to control, automate, and optimize almost every part of a company’s operations.”  

For the EDS Texas office, it starts with the $100,000 pilot project lighting the first floor of their headquarters. If that delivers at least a 30 per cent energy cost savings, it will be rolled out to the rest of the building, Hoenshell says.

For Pope, he hopes other businesses will follow that example.

“The easiest energy you create is the energy you save,” he says. “Lighting is a low hanging fruit and it’s easy to pick.”

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