Digital Lumens Sheds Light on Job No. 1

Shiny, highly visible commercial buildings and chic homes adored by design mavens may generate much of the buzz when it comes to innovative, energy-saving lighting technology. But smart lighting startup Digital Lumens aims to serve what CEO and President Tom Pincince calls “an invisible marketplace,” weaving computer intelligence into highly efficient LED (light-emitting diode) lighting systems for industrial facilities. Today Digital Lumens pulled back the curtain for the first time on one of its installations, announcing a project in Conklin, N.Y. that the company says has slashed lighting-related energy use at the facility by as much as 87 percent.

Founded in 2008, Digital Lumens’ technology combines LEDs with networking software. As Pincince explained to us earlier this year, each fixture has an on-board computer and mesh networking capabilities, allowing the system to adjust to variables such as whether daylighting is available, the state of a neighboring fixture or if a particular work area or machine needs to be illuminated at a set time. The system can also be programmed, and provide data about usage and occupancy to facility managers through Digital Lumens’ energy management system.

The Conklin project is at the 460,000-square-foot headquarters of Maines Paper & Food Service, Inc., a broadline foodservice distributor. As Pincince explained, Maines distributes products ranging from fruit and meat to napkins and plates to restaurants, convenience stores, educational and healthcare institutions, among other customers. Digital Lumens claims Maines expects to save an estimated 1.7 million kilowatt-hours annually, about equivalent to the electricity used by 200 homes in a year.

The new lighting system at Maines’ Conklin facility, installed on a trial basis in a single aisle at the beginning of this year before the full-scale installation 2-3 months ago, will take a 14-15 percent bite out of the warehouse’s total energy use, said Pincince. In this type of project in the industrial sector, Pincince said, there’s a lot less “friction” for advanced lighting than in residential applications, where homeowners “think about energy about six minutes a year,” or in the commercial sector where lessors and lessees can have conflicting interests.

Digital Lumens started out under the name GroomLED Inc., and shared space in its early days with Salem, Mass.-based efficiency services provider Groom Energy Solutions. As Groom has noted on its blog, it recruited a small team for the Digital Lumens venture with the goal of developing LED-based lighting systems meeting the high-wattage needs of its commercial and industrial customers. The idea was for an interdisciplinary team to consider optics, thermal, mechanics, power and control, taking an approach that Groom envisioned being “more like designing a computer than metal bending.”

As Pincince told us back in March, Digital Lumens has always been a “completely separate company,” from Groom, but that early connection helped Digital Lumens understand its potential future customers. It also helped paved the way for the Maines project: According to Digital Lumens’ release today, Maines worked with Groom Energy Solutions to identify lighting as an opportunity for savings (thanks in part to financial incentives from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA) and evaluate options including fluorescent and LED systems. Groom also completed the actual installation, replacing Maines’ 400-Watt, high-pressure sodium fixtures with Digital Lumens’ networked LED system.

Pincince said that while Groom continues to be an important partner for Digital Lumens, the startup is also “signing up new partners who are helping us extend our reach and relationships.” Part of the strategy, he said, is to avoid the “existing Byzantine and baroque channels” for lighting projects that often put more emphasis on aesthetics, and instead target companies that are already considering retrofits as part of efforts to reduce energy use and operating costs, while also reaping rewards from being “a green citizen” in the supply chain.

Digital Lumens’ announcement today comes on the heels of a report in the Journal of Physics D by researchers at Sandia National Laboratories who argue that, “the societal response to more efficient light production has been a preference to enjoy more light, rather than saving money and energy by keeping the amount of light produced a constant.” In other words, we’re generally inclined to use more light as it gets cheaper, effectively canceling out efficiency gains.

As Sandia researcher Jerry Simmons explained in a statement on Monday, “More fuel-efficient cars don’t necessarily mean we drive less; we may drive more. It’s a tension between supply and demand,” adding that, “Enlightened policy decisions may be necessary to partner with the technologies to have big impacts.”

Pincince takes issue with this line of reasoning, however. “Our customers are rational and pragmatic actors, who are primarily focused on reducing their energy footprint and costs, without compromising light quality,” Pincince told us in an email, noting that the report focuses mainly on residential customers and gives short shrift to cost as a motivating factor for adoption of these new technologies. Digital Lumens’ customers, he said, “see LED lighting as a vehicle for decreasing energy use (and cost) which in turn means increased productivity and profitability.”

Back in March, Pincince told us Digital Lumens had 16 trials under way and one purchase order. Today he says the company has “almost a dozen customers and a very significant pipeline of trials,” with each customer and trial project representing “a firm with tens and hundreds of facilities.”

Digital Lumens’ next steps, said Pincince, include launching new types of fixtures (within the next 2-3 months) for applications other than the company’s current highbay lighting offering. In addition, the company plans to continue developing its software package to allow more automation and integration with a growing number of energy management and demand response systems. As the software evolves, said Pincince, early customers like Maines and the dozen others still under the radar will be able to upgrade their systems to run the next, next-generation system for smarter lighting.

Image courtesy of Digital Lumens

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