Right now, very few businesses or real estate development companies would think first about using solar panels to run their outdoor lights, but in places where’s no established cabling, solar lights really can make sense from an economic and efficiency standpoint. And I’m not just talking about in emerging nations.
In the past six months, I’ve spoken with two companies that are pioneering the commercial market for these applications (the residential market is a separate animal): Sol Lighting, a Palm City, Fla.-based company that specializes in outdoor LED lighting technology; and Clear Blue Technologies, a Toronto-based maker of lighting controls and other smart grid components that is testing the viability of off-grid solar and wind-powered lights.
The size of the overall commercial outdoor lighting market is estimated at $11 billion. Within that, there’s a pronounced shift to LED technologies. In 2012, for example, 54 percent of the 2 million luminaires installed along roadways and tunnels around the world were LED format, reports Strategies Unlimited in its January 2014 report on outdoor area and street lighting. Another forecast from Navigant Research predicts shipments of smart, LED-based street lights will top 17 million by 2020.
No one appears to have cooked up a reliable separate market forecast for the niche solar sector, but Sol in particular, has made its presence felt globally over its roughly 20 years of existence. As of November 2013, it had installed more than 60,000 systems in 60 different countries, representing more than 10 megawatts of solar capacity. (That’s about 840,000 square feet of solar panels and enough lights to illuminate a nine square-mile parking lot.)
“The $11 billion-plus commercial outdoor lighting market is experiencing a solar and LED renaissance,” said Dibs Tailor, president and CEO of Sol Lighting, in a statement. “This 10 megawatt milestone confirms our leadership in this space and is a testament to our superior design, manufacturing and technology capabilities. By carefully integrating cutting-edge photovoltaic, LED and battery storage technologies into high-quality outdoor lighting products, we have made solar lighting very cost-effective and even more reliable.”
When I spoke with Tailor, he said roadway lighting such as the company’s 20/20, 10/10 and Greenway systems account for the vast majority of sales, although Sol sells integrated systems for bus stops, transit shelters, signs and emergency response.
In the United States, Sol is winning deals related to new construction projects, where there is little or no existing lighting infrastructure. Two examples include the Los Angeles County Arboretum, which couldn’t install grid-tied lights because of concerns over root systems across its 127-acre grounds; and the Top Gun Flight School in Fallon, Nev., which put them near aircraft fueling stations and power sub-stations. In both cases, the installations were meant to improve security. A third installation, this one for 146 systems, helped a swap meet business in Las Vegas add night-time events quickly while avoiding major new construction.
Sol’s technology was also used by Premier Homes in Richmond, Va., to add 21 lighting poles throughout a 40-home residential development.
The lights were actually an afterthought, one that didn’t emerge until after all the wiring and cabling for other utilities had already been buried, said Sean Bowers, chief operating officer for Premiere. “People were leaving lights on to brighten up the alleys,” he said.
Together with the city, the developer determined that solar lighting was a far more cost-effective way to put in lights than the traditional alternative: a savings of nearly $600,000 for the installation, not to mention the ongoing electricity cots, Bowers said. “It wasn’t very hard to learn how to work with these things,” he added.
So far, the installation has survived two hurricanes with no issue, and Premiere plans to use the same lights in another Richmond housing development, Bowers said.
It’s not realistic to expect solar lighting to become the norm for retrofits for years – if you take out the installation concerns, it’s tough to make the cost argument. But increasingly, the technology will find traction in locations where safety and grid infrastructure are of equal concern.
Aside from Sol and Clear Blue, some of the other companies with a particular focus on developing this emerging market include Solar Street Lights USA, OkSolar.com, Solar Lighting International, Solar Electric Power Co., and Silicon Solar.