Future-Proofing the Energy Efficiency of New LED Lighting
New research shows how integrating networked controlled LED lighting with other building systems can expand savings.
Managers of office buildings and other commercial facilities have a lot on their plates these days.
Workplaces closed during the pandemic have slowly reopened, but utilization of these spaces has changed for good in many instances, presenting building managers with new challenges. Meanwhile, the effects of global warming are more obvious than ever, bringing into focus the ways commercial buildings contributed to the climate crisis in the past and – more importantly – how they are now poised to mitigate it. To that end, companies are reassessing business practices, including their building operations, to reduce carbon emissions and advance sustainability goals.
There’s a lot to consider – especially since the facility manager’s fundamental responsibilities will always be equipment maintenance, efficient operations and attention to the bottom line. When managers engage with energy efficiency rebate programs to pursue both savings and sustainability, incentives are often siloed. This makes it difficult to realize the benefits of integrating multiple building systems although doing so can yield significant energy savings and carbon reduction. A new study makes a clear case for incentivizing and encouraging such combinations — particularly for lighting and HVAC.
Research commissioned by the DesignLights Consortium (DLC) measured how integrating networked, controlled LED lighting with other building systems can expand the savings of already super-efficient LEDs. The results, particularly with HVAC, were compelling – enough so that the DLC, whose work influences the design of commercial energy efficiency programs across North America, recommended revamping rebate structures to capture these significant energy savings and decarbonization opportunities.
Lighting’s energy consumption
To understand this better, some background on the role of commercial lighting in energy consumption and efficiency is helpful. Using about 75 percent less electricity and lasting up to 25 times longer than incandescent lighting, LED fixtures now dominate the commercial and industrial lighting market. Add networked lighting controls (NLC) and previous research shows the energy savings potential from LED lighting projects increases dramatically – saving roughly 50 percent of the new LED lighting load across eight categories of facilities and up to 70 percent in some building types.
Due to high upfront costs and unfamiliarity with the technology, however, less than one percent of all luminaires in the U.S. have NLCs, according to the Department of Energy. In the 5.5 million U.S. commercial buildings under 50,000 square feet, less than a third have any lighting controls beyond an on-off switch. That means there’s massive potential for energy savings if this technology is implemented at scale, backed by incentives.
One reason incentives for NLCs have not taken off is the huge success of LED savings alone over the last decade. The extensive transition from legacy lighting technologies to LEDs fueled a reduction in total electricity consumed by lighting in U.S. commercial buildings from 17 percent in 2012 to 9 percent in 2022. While using less is good, this scenario doesn’t bode well for incentivizing the lighting controls proven to drive significantly deeper energy savings. Simply put, as lighting grows more efficient, less energy is saved by each new NLC system, thus reducing the value of incentives offered by utilities and energy efficiency programs. Keen to reverse this decline and incentivize more NLC systems, the DLC commissioned a study to explore how to best capture the full potential of NLCs, thereby strengthening commercial lighting’s role in a net zero future.
Published in August 2023, “Economic Potential of Networked Lighting Controls in Commercial Buildings: Tapping the Added Value of HVAC Connections” found that deep energy savings are possible through integration of controlled LED lighting with HVAC systems. Using as models two states with robust efficiency programs but different climates (Arizona and Connecticut), the analysis assessed potential energy savings in two situations: coupling LEDs with network controls at the time of originally planned LED installations and a “controls-ready replacement” scenario that assumes LED fixtures are designed to accommodate the future addition of NLCs.
Savings with controls
The research discovered significant savings in both scenarios, with the most benefits derived from integration with HVAC, which uses more than half the energy consumed in a typical commercial building. Savings from occupancy-controlled HVAC effectively unlock otherwise stifled LED lighting savings, with the most potential value in large complexes, retail and health facilities and other big buildings with high energy-use intensity. NLC occupancy sensors can reduce HVAC energy use in a typical large building by roughly 30 percent. When a Building Management System in a large building uses NLCs to control lighting, as well as occupancy signals from NLC sensors as input for HVAC control, total energy usage in the building can easily drop by 20 percent.
Difficult or expensive to reach without NLC-HVAC integration, savings such as these are significant enough to make a noticeable impact on the bottom line. The study estimated potential ratepayer savings over six years (through 2030) at $217 million in Arizona and $1.2 billion in Connecticut if NLC-HVAC integration is incentivized and promoted by efficiency programs.
Whether new incentives materialize, benchmarking energy performance policies are affecting more buildings across North America, with steep financial penalties for wasting energy. NLC-HVAC integration could help penalized buildings save energy quickly, before aging HVAC equipment is eventually replaced at the end of its lifetime.
Investing in integration of networked lighting and HVAC systems can also further a company’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. McKinsey & Company reports that over 90 percent of S&P 500 companies now report their performance on a range of sustainability issues, including energy. In fact, maximizing energy efficiency — including through integration of lighting, HVAC and other building systems — is among the top ESG trends commercial facility owners should pursue, says AEI Consultants, a firm that advises firms on building, environmental, land and sustainability concerns.
Coming just as first-generation LEDs are wearing out and need replacing, the DLC’s study demonstrated the financial wisdom and sustainability benefits of adding NLCs to planned and future LED lighting upgrades and highlighted the value of pairing networked LED lighting with HVAC systems. Since LED fixtures installed today could last up to 15 years, it is only prudent to make sure the lighting systems installed now either include NLCs or are equipped for the straightforward addition of future controls. For commercial lighting decision makers, there’s a brief window to make astute choices now to lock in the ability to capture future energy savings as well as the occupant comfort, security and wellbeing enabled by advanced controls.
Levin Nock is Senior Technical Manager at the DesignLights Consortium.