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Lighting Retrofits and EVs: Building electrification could lead to NLC infrastructure

By Craig DiLouie | Jul 14, 2023
SHUTTERSTOCK / ALINA MOSINYAN

It may sound odd that future mass adoption of electric vehicles may positively change the economics of lighting retrofits, but hear me out.

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It may sound odd that future mass adoption of electric vehicles may positively change the economics of lighting retrofits, but hear me out.

The United States stands at the cusp of the electrification trend, replacing equipment powered by fossil fuels with technology that runs on electricity, ideally supplied by renewable energy. The main goal is carbon reduction to mitigate global climate change, but there are also health and financial benefits.

Electrification is likely to result in changes such as replacing residential heating systems with electric or hybrid units. A keystone, however, is transportation—replacing gasoline­-powered vehicles with EVs. According to the International Energy Agency, global consumer demand for EVs increased from 0.2% of total car sales in 2011 to 4.6% in 2021, an increase from about 20,000 to more than 2 million. Moving forward, EV sales in the United States may reach 40% of total passenger car sales by 2030, according to S&P Global Mobility.

As more EVs hit the road, commercial building owners may find themselves investing in EV charging stations due to government mandates, in response to an incentive or to offer an amenity. According to rebate fulfillment firm BriteSwitch, about two-thirds of the United States is covered by utility and government rebates for chargers for commercial, public and fleet use.

Even with a rebate, however, the cost of adding EV charging stations to a commercial building can require significant investment to cover the charging stations and potentially associated infrastructure. C. Webster Marsh, founder of Penumbra Controls, Marlborough, Mass., and project manager for Boston Illumination Group, Natick, Mass., pointed to a hypothetical building.

“Suppose a building requires 500 kW of power, which the current infrastructure is designed for,” he said. “New EV charging stations will require 125 kW of power. You can either add the infrastructure to increase the property’s demand to 625 kW or reduce demand by 125 kW, or 25%, when all EV charging stations are in use.”

Reducing demand, Marsh added, means improving building energy efficiency, including lighting. The result is that less new infrastructure may be needed to accommodate EV charging, resulting in what he calls an electrification offset. Of course, this covers low-hanging fruit such as replacing traditional lighting with LED, but includes options such as space-individualized lighting design, networked lighting controls (NLCs) and plug load control.

NLCs are networked intelligent (microprocessor­-based) systems of control devices connected through a network capable of integration, programming, individual control, data and more. A 2017 study by the DesignLights Consortium found average lighting energy savings of 47%. The return on investment (ROI) for an NLC may not be as attractive for simple traditional-to-LED conversions, though, resulting in it being left out of a significant number of lighting upgrades.

“By adding an NLC that can compensate for the increased demand for new EV charging stations, you’ve saved the time and money that would otherwise be required to add more infrastructure to the property,” Marsh said.

This is not to say that NLCs or even energy­-efficient lighting offer a panacea able to handle the entire typical offset. The point is that the traditional ROI for these systems may change when factoring in the offset, making investment more valuable than just kilowatt-hour savings alone.

For electrical contractors, EV charging presents an emerging opportunity. They can differentiate themselves by engaging customers with a conversation about an integrated approach to minimize costs. Here are several ways contractors can consider preparing for this trend.

Become familiar with it. Keep on top of EV adoption and the potential for charging stations in your area, and be prepared to engage with customers about their options.

Offer energy-efficiency services. Become familiar with the most energy-­efficient lighting and controls options. If the building is not energy-efficient, the owner should consider making it so before adding infrastructure, even if they have already adopted some measures.

Stay abreast of mandates and penalties. Some municipalities such as New York City are beginning to implement carbon reporting requirements and penalties, adding yet another factor to ROI. Be aware of any such coming changes in your area and advise customers ahead of time.

Keep apprised of lighting rebates. As utilities struggle to satisfy increased demand for power, the economics of rebates may also change, resulting in stronger incentives, particularly for options such as NLCs.

If an NLC is installed, use it. NLCs offer the potential for global programming, complex sequences of operation, integration with other systems and data about energy consumption. Customers would benefit from tuning the system to optimize energy savings using measures such as institutional task tuning and shortening occupancy sensor timeout settings.

Look at other opportunities. Installing EV charging may offer opportunities to evaluate garage lighting and optimize it for visual comfort and energy efficiency.

Header image: shutterstock / Alina Mosinyan

About The Author

DiLouie, L.C. is a journalist and educator specializing in the lighting industry. Learn more at ZINGinc.com and LightNOWblog.com.

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