Who would have ever guessed that architects would to turn technology originally devised for jamming guidance systems on missiles to create a warm, expansive environment?
In one of the more novel swords-to-plowshares path toward commercialization, Renaissance Lighting sells high-end LED light fixtures that eliminate many of the problems that have hampered solid-state lighting – high costs, inconsistent quality and an often unnerving, clinical quality light. "Alien autopsy" is one way to describe the color coming from some LED lights.
Barry Weinbaum, Renaissance CEO, let me look at a green LED fixture from another company during a break at the ThinkGreen conference, now taking place in San Francisco. The tiny LEDs inside of it emit individual beams of light that result in choppy shadows. "No one wants to look at that," he said.
Renaissance gets around this issue with sensors and an optical chamber that collects the light from several LEDs into a single source of light that resembles the light coming from familiar incandescent bulbs. The sensors gauge the quality and intensity of the LEDs, which can come from different manufacturers, and the optical chamber shapes it while eliminating pixilation and glare.
"We have the most natural look. You don't see the LEDs at all," he said.
The lights – the company sells 4- and 7-inch round and square fixtures that are the equivalent of bulbs and can fit into the existing light infrastructure – rely in part on technology developed in 2001 in the wake of the first Gulf War. Defense contractor SAIC and Crowley Technologies were charged with creating a device that would throw off the guidance systems of guided missiles with signals of its own. (Some of the IP dates back further.) The secret sauce was a technology called constructive occlusion.
Then, one day in a meeting, potential customers said they should put a light source in there. They did. Subsequently, SAIC spun off Renaissance as an independent firm.
Renaissance is now one of the many entrants in the booming market for next generation lighting. Lighting consumes 22 percent of the electrical power in the U.S. and light fixtures, and they way they are deployed, are not very efficient. Incandescent bulbs only use 5 percent of the power consumed by them to make light. The rest gets converted to waste heat.
Because of laws in Australia, Canada, the E.U., California and other places, "you will be unable to incandescents in a few years," he said. $30 billion of the recent stimulus package is dedicated to retrofitting government buildings for energy efficiency.
Some of the notable startups in lighting include Eden Park Illumination (energy efficient indoor plasma lights), Luxim (high-intensity plasma lights for streets and public places), HID Laboratories (public light control systems), Lumiette (efficient, long lasting fluorescents) and VU1 (cathode lights).
Renaissance is in the $80 billion fixture market, dominated now by companies like Philips and General Electric (see Green Light post). Rather than make light sources, the company bundles them into bulbs. Vertical integration is an ongoing trend. Because LEDs last for ten years or more, vendors have to capture as much revenue at the initial sale as possible. Renaissance's strategy is similar to one pursued by Bridgelux, which is taking its LEDs to turn them into bulb equivalents.
Cost, Weinbaum, added is coming down. Renaissance's LED fixtures cost about 25 percent to 30 percent more than equivalent CFLs, but the premium is recaptured in about two to three years in lower energy costs. LEDs consume about half the power of CFLs.
"CFLs are the real competition," he said.
Another advantage is that LEDs don't have mercury, like CFLs. The amount of mercury in CFLs can be measured in milligrams, but no one wants it around.
"When we were kids, we all broke thermometers so we could play with the mercury," he said. "Today, you'd be insane to do that."
Still, the company is not going into the wide residential market. It will target retail, hotels and things like high-end condo developments.
"You won't find us in Home Depot or Lowe's any day soon," he said.
The product line includes white light fixtures as well as red-green-blue fixtures. A software application called Rhapsody lets buyers dynamically control the color of light. The Incredible Hulk is coming for dinner? Make the room green, and the flip to blue when Mr. Freeze arrives. Colored lights can also be used for light therapy.