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When It Comes to Saving Money on Electricity, Colleges See the Light in LED

James Dishaw's lighting revolution began about a year ago, when a salesman dropped by his office in the facilities department at Le Moyne College. The salesman came from a company that manufactures highly efficient LED lighting.

"He wanted to sell me a bunch of specialty items," Mr. Dishaw, the college's facilities director, says. Mr. Dishaw knew about the efficiencies of LED lights, but he wanted something he could put right into the fixtures he already had in abundance. He pointed out the rectangular, 2-by-4 fluorescent lights seen in offices everywhere. "I said, You know, what we really need, and what you're going to sell a lot of, is these four-foot tubes. Everyone has a gazillion of them."

The salesman came back sometime later with a four-foot LED light that offered a brighter, more natural light than the fluorescents with half the electricity usage and a longer life — but at a premium price of $75 a bulb, compared with $2.50 for the old fluorescents. Mr. Dishaw has installed the LED's in his office and in classrooms, hallways, and even his boss's office — 200 in all.

"People see the lighting and say, Can I get that in my office?" he says.

Now he is trying to figure out how the college can raise the money to replace some 25,000 bulbs across the campus with the new LED's, which some energy experts say are the next generation in lighting.

A buzz about LED lighting is growing at colleges across the country, but it is a trend that probably few people would notice. Electric lighting, after all, is the most basic service a facilities department provides, so ubiquitous that people might not think about it, unless there is a problem. An institution with financial troubles might be said to have trouble keeping the lights on, but most colleges keep their lights on night and day, burning money and energy.

Making the Leap

In recent years, the spiraled compact fluorescent bulb has stood as a symbol of environmental sensibility. But the LED — or "light-emitting diode," which can feature scores of little plastic bulbs on a light device — may soon eclipse it. The consulting firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu predicted in early 2008 that the LED would replace the conventional light bulb within the year. That prediction did not come to pass, but it conveyed a sense that LED technology is on its way.

The question with any new energy-efficiency technology: Should colleges invest in a relatively new, expensive, and unproven technology now, or should they wait until more institutions adopt the technology and prices drop? There is already talk of lighting technology that may succeed LED's, like organic light-emitting diodes and superefficient plasma lighting.

Russell D. Dupuis, an LED researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says many experts believe that lighting infrastructure will switch over to LED's around 2012. But he points to major companies that are already buying into the technology. Wal-Mart, a company that has tried to establish a green image in the past several years, will use LED's to illuminate its refrigerator cases and its gigantic white logo outside stores, Mr. Dupuis says. LED's are already widely used in streetlights and street signs, hand-held flashlights, and the red and blue light bars on police cars.

Others, including James Brodrick, who is in charge of the solid-state lighting and testing program at the U.S. Department of Energy, think that LED technology — particularly for some interior lighting — may need more time to mature. "There are products out there today that work fine and have payback," he says. But the department has tested several four-foot replacement lights, and "we haven't found one yet that works well. If colleges are interested in that, they better do their homework."

About a dozen institutions, including Marquette University, Madison Area Technical College, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and some of the University of California institutions, are part of an LED-testing program supported by Cree, a manufacturer.

Barry A. Olson, the associate facilities director in the housing department at North Carolina State University, which was the first to join the program early last year, says his college has purchased 1,500 LED light fixtures for installation around the campus, ranging in price from $100 to $400 apiece. "We have been a guinea pig," he says. The good: The light quality is better, and the energy savings can be more than 60 percent. The bad: Because the fixtures are new, electricians charge more to install them, and they are expensive. "They are a hard sell in a down economy," he says.

Weighing the Options

For Mr. Dishaw, the question of whether to buy 25,000 LED's comes down to potential payback versus a significant investment of around $1.8-million. Each fluorescent is 32 to 34 watts, while an LED is 18. Each fluorescent fixture requires a ballast, which controls the current flowing to the light and consumes 10 watts; LED's don't need a ballast. If LED's were installed on Le Moyne's small campus, with lights on an average of 12 hours a day, the savings would amount to almost $200,000 a year, with a payback in about 10 years — or faster, if electricity prices go up. The college's annual carbon emissions from purchased electricity would drop by more than 780 metric tons, or 17 percent.

The light provided by the LED's was more than enough — in fact, in some four-bulb fluorescent fixtures, only three LED replacements had to be used to provide the same light. There was no "shadowing," or harsh light like that produced by a spotlight, as Mr. Dishaw feared there would be. And because LED's provide a constant light, rather than the very fast, imperceptible flicker of conventional lights, he finds that his eyes are less strained.

Here is the irresistible question: How many people in facilities does it take to change all the light bulbs? At Le Moyne, and at any college, quite a few. Mr. Dishaw estimates that he has six building mechanics who spend up to 15 percent of their time just changing dead fluorescent bulbs, which last 10,000 to 20,000 hours. LED's last 60,000 to 80,000 hours — or around 18 years at 12 hours a day. And unlike fluorescents, LED's contain no mercury or other hazardous materials, so disposal is easy.

The initial investment is the main barrier, Mr. Dishaw says, but the college is considering jumping in now — with some help. "I want to see what kind of funding I can get," he says, adding that he might approach the state energy-research agency, the regional energy company, or even local politicians. "I'd say, Here is an opportunity. Why don't we fund something like this that can reduce the draw on the grid and reduce the harmful heavy metals that are going to landfills?"

posted on: 6/5/2009