How LED will change the way we view cities

Shenzhen is the dramatic front line of an important and neglected battle facing a rapidly urbanizing world: the struggle between light and darkness. For commercial and security reasons, cities and businesses want more light everywhere, but our decades of dark saturation bombing is causing loopholes in the electricity budget, confusing and killing wildlife, and completely erasing our view of the stars, which have been the inspiration of scientists, poets, and explorers for thousands of years. “Once the most common human experience has become the rarest,” wrote Paul Bogard, author of “The End of the Night,” a book that attacks the world’s uncontrolled light pollution.

The core technology of the transformation is LED. LEDs have broken the history of lighting. As solid-state semiconductors, they are more like processors in smartphones than overhead lights. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and many other cities around the world are deploying LEDs in an attempt to solve the problems caused by most, if not all, inefficient traditional lights.

The upfront cost of LEDs is three to four times that of traditional high-voltage street lamps, but their duration is three to four times that of traditional high-voltage street lamps, generating two to three times more light per watt, and saving 30 to 70% of electricity annually. Because they are digital chips, they will only become cheaper as the efficiency of Moore’s Law increases. As electronic components, they are also more programmable and can be more effectively connected to radio and sensor chips to create a citywide wireless network to monitor crime, power outages, and water pipe breaks, and coordinate disaster relief efforts.

The biggest players in the field of street lighting – OSRAM, Royal Philips, Acuity Brands, and Panasonic – are racing to implement new business models to take action before sales of traditional lighting fixtures decline. Manufacturers used to expect to sell replacement bulbs and components every four years, but LED lamps offer a 10-year warranty, although many lamps can last from 15 to 20 years. Several manufacturers are focusing on selling software to control and monitor LED networks through central command centers or smartphones. Philips launched CityTouch management software in 2011 to monitor the energy consumption of each lamp, identify faulty lamps, and dim or turn on each lamp. The company now charges unspecified annual service fees to 260 lighting project owners in 31 countries.

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