Forget wireless. The future belongs to Ethernet cables, says Redwood Systems.
The semi-secretive lighting company has come up with a method that potentially eliminates a number of the headaches around the challenge of reducing power consumption in buildings. At the same time, the company is helping to pave the way for ameliorating other problems like high labor rates for construction work, better fire safety and improved security.
Redwood essentially wants to replace electric wiring for lights in buildings with Ethernet cable. Ethernet can't power regular bulbs, but it can be used to power light emitting diodes, or LEDs, in part because LEDs only consume 7 to 12 watts of power.
But unlike standard wires, Ethernet cables can carry signals easily -- and that's where a lot of the benefits come in. Instead of putting the electronics for generating light at each individual LED, the electronics can be centralized in a server and delivered via the cable to each light. This cuts down component cost while increasing reliability. Jeremy Stieglitz, vice president of marketing, explains more in the video.
The cable creates a network with regularly spaced nodes spanning an office or an entire floor. By attaching light sensors to it, the lights can automatically dim themselves when sunlight is available to save power. Carbon dioxide sensors, motion detectors and security devices can be added, too. Right now, these have to be wired separately.
Want to dim the lights or curb the air conditioner during a peak power crisis? You can select which lights and which rooms by using the data coming in from local occupancy sensors.
"I can now afford to smash together eight sensors and put them next to every light while my competitor can afford to do one," said Steiglitz. "Wiring in buildings now looks like it did in 1885. It is dumb, unmanageable and unintelligent."
Networking has become one of the more active segments in green building in the last year. Buildings consume 39 percent of all of the energy in America (and 76 percent of the total electricity) and most buildings aren't exactly efficient. Employees chronically leave lights on and in many buildings the air conditioner and heater can be running at the same time on the same day.
Lighting and lighting management is particularly inefficient. Although the air conditioners and heaters in most large buildings are controlled through management systems from companies like Johnson Controls or Honeywell, lights largely remain free agents. PG&E late last year estimated that only around one percent of California office buildings sport dynamic, networked lighting controls. Lighting consumes 25 percent of the energy in U.S. office buildings, according to the Department of Energy Buildings Data Book. Computers only account for 4 percent: you could put six desktops on every desk and still not equal the power going to lights.
Adura Technologies and Lumenergi have tried to tackle the problem with hardware and software that lets you remotely dim fluorescent bulbs, still the overwhelming standard in commercial office buildings. (Like Redwood, both companies also want to expand from lights into controlling lights to other devices).
Right now, Adura and Lumenergi both have much larger potential markets. Fluorescents can be found in 85 percent of U.S. office buildings. The technology from both companies can also be inserted into existing buildings. Because it depends on LEDs -- and because Redwood hopes to eliminate existing infrastructure -- the company will necessarily have to concentrate on new construction, which remains mired in a lull. Nonetheless, many believe that LEDs will become the basis of the lighting industry in the future.
Competitors will also likely flock to the market. Tiny Juice Technology, for instance, recently showcased its own Ethernet-LED technology at the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco. I wouldn't be surprised if Philips, the reigning king of lighting, has something like this in its labs.
And where do fire safety and labor rates come into things? Ethernet cables are low-voltage connections compared to wires.
"Firemen hate cutting through wires," he said. "They can cut through this and not worry. It is simply a safer system."
That low voltage nature of cable also greatly reduces the complexity of installation. Although Redwood will sell its products through electrical contractors, IT guys could probably learn how to do it. Over time, as building inspectors and contractors become accustomed to the idea, it could lead to lower construction costs. Redwood estimates cables could reduce the time required for installing a lighting system by 25 percent.
"You plug in Ethernet and it works," he said. "We want that in lighting."
As a final bonus, Redwood decorates its offices with historic light bulbs. Here are some of the more interesting ones. They are actually quite aesthetically pleasing.