International Year of Light

International Year of Light radiates potential

Scientists foresee continued improvement in energy efficiency, quality and versatility
Tuesday, July 7, 2015
By Barbara Carss

An overview of the goals of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies almost invariably leads to wordplay. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed the year for 2015 to highlight achievements, reflect on possibilities and promote a spectrum of related economic and sustainable development objectives.

In keeping with UNESCO’s mandate, the year is meant to support energy, education, agriculture and health through research, awareness building and hands-on projects. Lighting needs in the developing world are one of the focuses, along with energy-efficient and low-emission technology, photonics and outreach to the next generation of scientists, policy makers and consumers.

“Light plays a vital role in our daily lives and is an imperative cross-cutting discipline of science in the 21st century,” UNESCO’s International Year of Light (IYL) message reiterates. “It has revolutionized medicine, opened up international communication via the internet, and continues to be central to linking cultural, economic and political aspects of the global society.”

Light has been a perennial cornerstone of human safety, productivity and urban life. The ability to illuminate space underpinned the industrial revolution and remains critical to today’s service and knowledge-driven economies. Photonics now carries manufacturing, trade and communications into a new digital age where light is not just an end product, but is, itself, a transmitter of energy and data in a fraction of the time that electronic systems require.

“Artificial light is one of the greatest innovations of all time,” asserts Michael Colligan, president of the lighting distribution and services firm, Lighting Solutions. “If you measure the progress of economic development and the deployment of artificial light throughout the world and throughout history, the two go hand-in-hand.”

For real estate owners and managers, lighting is unquestionably a core commodity and a major and non-negotiable cost of business. Yet, since IYL is also intended as a celebration, the buildings sector is one of the most obvious harbingers of great things to come. While green building and energy management specialists already applaud the dramatic advancements and rapidly dropping costs of technologies like LED, the scientists behind those innovations promise that today’s vintage of high-performance lighting is really just the beginning.

Celebrating technological innovation

“We are only just scratching the surface now,” reports Venkat Venkataramanan, the director of scientific operations at University of Toronto’s Impact Centre and the president of the Canadian chapter of the International Commission on Illumination (CNC/CIE). “The way technology is being used is going to be drastically shifting in the coming years.”

Beyond continued improvement in energy efficiency, he foresees enhanced quality of light and greater versatility that would enable one lamp to deliver all functions currently provided by a range of task lighting. That applies even to flat panel screens currently viewed more narrowly as a conduit for information. Meanwhile, new methods for engineering daylight and carrying it into building interiors will further decrease energy loads and improve indoor environmental quality.

“Enabling all these things will be an enormous amount of integration with sensors and the Internet of Things,” Venkataramanan adds.

Real estate is both a consumer of new technologies and an important agent in research, development, commercialization and market adoption. Lighting has long been typified as the “low-hanging fruit” of energy conservation for its ability to deliver savings with relatively little capital expenditure and complications. Plus, a much shorter life cycle than other energy-intensive building systems, such as HVAC, enables steady performance gains and drives innovation.

“Lighting is kind of leading the way in building automation because lighting, compared to other things, is low-cost,” Venkataramanan observes.

As an offshoot, energy service providers may soon be adding lighting to their menu of offerings to building owners and managers — a contract option that could make increasing economic sense as the technology continues to evolve.

“Lighting has always been seen as a fixed asset within buildings, but the business models are changing whereby lighting will become a service,” Venkataramanan predicts. “Consumers will not have to worry about shifting technology.”

IYL events and projects

The CNC/CIE and the Toronto chapter of the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) are marking the year with special events and efforts to make scientific discussion more accessible to the public. Notably, the biannual joint meeting of the Canadian and U.S. CIE chapters will be held in Toronto in October and is planned as celebration of IYL. That includes a series of public talks in conjunction with the high-level scientific presentations conference delegates will attend.

Throughout the year, CNC/CIE and IES members have opened their labs and businesses to the public and have established a roster of experts who are available, upon request, to speak to community and special interest groups. In particular, the lighting organizations hope to connect with high school students to trigger their interest in a dynamic field of research, which conveniently dovetails with the study of optics — light, colour and vision — in Ontario’s grade 10 science curriculum.

“We want to encourage lighting professionals to take up this outreach challenge,” says Rini Ngai, communications chair for IES Toronto. “An hour amidst eager and energetic young students can be very fulfilling for the speaker also.”

U of T’s Impact Centre — an R&D/commercialization incubator forging entrepreneurial partnerships among the university’s scientists and industry — has embarked on a summer-long challenge to design and build an off-grid, solar-powered lighting system that could be deployed in a rural area of the Philippines. “These are the kinds of projects that an official (UNESCO) year can motivate that might not necessarily happen otherwise,” Venkataramanan notes.

The Impact Centre is also hosting three workshops examining the diverse range of applications for light-based technologies. For example, the first workshop earlier this spring explored light’s role in clean technology, such as its potential as a non-chemical alternative for water and wastewater treatment. The other workshops, set for July and September, will focus on light in health care, and light in communications.

Complementary environmental interests

Other interest groups see IYL as a fortuitous launching pad for discussing the interplay of light, buildings and the environment. FLAP, a name drawn from the acronym for Fatal Light Awareness Project, has a mission to reduce the dangers of reflective glass and promote bird-friendly design and mitigation options for existing buildings.

“This is just a great opportunity to do more outreach and educate people on the issues,” affirms Michael Mesure, FLAP’s executive director.

Green and smart building technologies — solar-powered and other energy-efficient systems with controls made easily accessible via networks, devices and apps — clearly align with many IYL objectives. Linking it to the even bigger picture of climate change and international greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets, parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have been urged to take advantage of technology in a way that will help make room for developing countries and emergent economies.

“As 60 per cent of the world’s population migrates to urban environments by 2030, demand for energy by cities will increase substantially. Solar-powered, connected, controllable LED lighting will help cities achieve savings of 40 to 80 per cent on energy used for lighting,” says Simone Skopek, a director with JLL Energy and Sustainability Services and author of Green + Productive Workplace – The Office of the Future…Today.

Light’s influence on productivity resonates in the real estate industry as financial, social and health analysts develop approaches for measuring and quantifying paybacks on green buildings. “An understanding of the impact on human physiology and new technologies that impact people’s bio-rhythms will also enhance people’s everyday lives,” Skopek says.

“When all is said and done, daylight is what humans need for health and well-being,”  Venkataramanan concurs.

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management and Building Strategies & Sustainability.

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