LED lights is a better option than nuclear power plants, and LEDs may be the end of nuclear power plants.
Businesses, voters, utilities and politicians will be asking that question-or an equivalent form of it-several times over the next two decades. Should they invest in technology and projects that generate power or into products like solid-state lights or dynamic air conditioners that conserve electricity?
By a sheer coincidence, LED lights and nuclear power provide an intriguing way to study the issue. Nuclear power plants generate approximately19% of the electric power in the U.S. Lighting accounts for approximately 19% of the power used. Thus, you can argue the fleet of 104 commercial nuclear reactors exists to keep the lights on. If you want to increase functional capacity by 20 percent, you can build 21 nuclear reactors or reduce light power by 20 percent.
The picture stays roughly the same when you look globally.Worldwide, lighting accounting for 19% of power consumption while nuclear generates 12.3 percent of the world’s power generation from 434 nuclear reactors. Global electrical use will climb 93 percent between 2010 and 2040 to 39 trillion kilowatt hours while, electric light output is expected to nearly double, from 113 petalumens in 2000 to 217 petalumens by 2030. Lighting and power move hand in hand.
So what’s the logical thing to do? Spoiler alert-bulbs win hands down. The Department of Energy estimates that solid-state lighting is already on track to cut lighting power by 46%.
“In 2030, the annual site energy savings due to the increased penetration of LED lighting is estimated to be approximately 300 terawatt-hours, the equivalent annual electrical output of about fifty 1,000-megawatt power plants,” the DOE estimates.
Put another way, if you could install these anticipated LED lighting systems overnight-and the only impediment to that would be finding enough bulbs-you could mothball 44 reactors by the end of the year and/or postpone any new plants for decades.
Even more aggressive measures could further reduce the need for nuclear. Case studies that show that networked controls combined with LEDs can cut power by 80 to 90 percent, or another 35 to 45 power plants. With smart lights and a computerized Clapper, we’ve already whacked out nearly the entire reactor fleet.
Would lighting be more cost-effective? Yes, by a wide margin. Georgia Power is in the midst of trying to bring two nuclear power reactors online. The estimated budget is currently $14 billion, or $900 million over earlier estimates, and the project has been delayed to 2017 or 2018. Earlier this month, Westinghouse, which is building the reactor, filed a lawsuit against Georgia Power.
Finland’s Olkiluoto, a 1.6 gigawatt plant originally slated for completion in 2009, won’t likely go live until 2016.
Compare that to lighting. The cost of the primary component package for making LED bulbs fell from $13 per kilolumens to $6 per kilolumen from 2010 to 2011. In 2012, Lux Research predicted LED bulb prices would drop by 50% to hit $11 by 2020. But, oops, it’s already happened. Several vendors sell 60 watt equivalent bulbs for $12 to $10.
Here’s another way to look at it. There are roughly 6 billion bulbs in U.S. households. They consume about 25 percent of light electricity and the bulbs have an average wattage of 46 watts, according to the DOE. By swapping in $10, 11-watt LEDs, you could cut overall power consumption by 15 percent. One $7 billion nuclear plant like one of Georgia Power’s 1.2 GW units would add a little over 1 percent of capacity. The bulb solution would cost $60 billion, and around $36 billion two years from now, and require only that consumers know how to screw in a light bulb. Nuclear would cost $105 billion, probably more, and take decades.
And note that residential LEDs provide the least bang for the buck. The 2.4 billion commercial lighting systems consume half the total light power. In commercial markets, vendors have come up with programs to finance lighting upgrades through utility bill savings, reducing the cost of new lights to zero or close to it. New York, London, Paris, Buenos Aires and other cities have already launched LED streetlight programs. Fun fact: there are 2.4 billion commercial, industrial and outdoor lights in the U.S.
As a result, demand is expanding. McKinsey & Co. estimates that worldwide revenue for LEDs in general lighting will mushroom from approximately $6.5 billion in 2011 to over $75 billion by 2020. The market share for LEDs in lighting will grow from approximately 10% today to 45% percent in 2016 and 70% by 2020.
LEDs aren’t perfect. Recently, we bought, and quickly returned, ceiling LEDs from a large, brand-name manufacturer because they bathed the living room in a clinical, white light. It looked sort of like the patient room in a free clinic. But most bulbs, such as the new low-cost bulbs from Switch, do quite a good job of mimicking the performance of incandescents.
There’s also the issue of government interference and manipulation of the market. Many conservatives don’t like LED bulbs because the market in part was jump started by efficiency initiatives.
But in a straight comparison, bulbs win again. Nuclear epitomized big government. Britain recently announced it will build two reactors for $26 billion. Two state-controlled corporations from China will own 30 to 40 percent while Areva, a corporation largely owned by the French government, will own another 10 percent. The cost of the power will be approximately double current wholesale prices.
LED prices have declined largely through market competition and technological advanced. In fact, LED bulbs potentially will reduce government. Lighting execs have told me that one of the big complaints about LED streetlights is the fact that, because they last so long, municipal employees worry about job cutbacks. You simply don’t need as many maintenance people.
And finally, there is the issue of safety. Is anyone really afraid of Iran getting its hands on a dimmer switch?