It’s been more than a year since much of the global – and much of SA’s – workforce shifted to remote working, leaving office buildings across the world standing empty. Now, as companies begin the slow shuffle back to ‘normal’ office set-ups, the impact of energy efficiency is once again under the spotlight.
In early April, with vaccine roll-outs picking up across the world, major multinationals such as Google, Amazon and Wells Fargo hinted at a partial post-pandemic return to office work. ‘We believe most of us benefit by being physically together,’ Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf and COO Scott Powell told employees. ‘Being pulled into meetings, learning from seeing how others work, and the often unplanned, casual interactions that occur when people see each other in the workplace can be really important.’ They weren’t pulling the plug on WFH (which, in the ‘new normal’ we keep hearing about, will always have its place); rather, they were signalling the future of work as being a combination of at-home and in-office. From an energy point of view, that means a renewed risk of costly inefficiencies.
While many other aspects of life and work were put on pause during the pandemic, the urgency around efficient, renewable energy continued. The International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) annual Renewable Capacity Statistics 2021 report states that, despite COVID-19’s global economic slowdown, more than 260 GW of renewable-energy capacity (representing more than 80% of all new electricity capacity) was added worldwide in 2020. Africa alone saw a steady increase of 2.6 GW.
‘These numbers tell a remarkable story of resilience and hope,’ says IRENA director-general Francesco La Camera. ‘Despite the challenges and the uncertainty of 2020, renewable energy emerged as a source of undeniable optimism for a better, more equitable, resilient, clean and just future. The great reset offered a moment of reflection and chance to align our trajectory with the path to inclusive prosperity, and there are signs we are grasping it.’
In SA, the need for reliable, renewable electricity has been highlighted by the continued troubles at national utility Eskom. ‘The question of electricity has become one of the most pressing issues facing the South African economy and its recovery,’ analysts at wealth management firm Citadel Investment Services said in March 2021. ‘South Africans have become accustomed to power outages, but it is important as a nation not to ignore or become desensitised to the mounting economic toll of load shedding. Our local economic recovery and growth prospects depend on sustainable electricity being placed at the top of the agenda.’
Yet while the source of our electricity is of course important, there’s an equal focus on how we use that energy. A study conducted by Schneider Electric just before the UK’s first lockdown in 2020 found that between 8 pm and midnight – when office workers typically head home and go to bed – light levels across London fell by just 30% and remained more or less constant until 4 am the next day.
‘Perhaps the most shocking thing about energy waste is that most of us don’t even recognise it when we see it,’ says Kelly Becker, Schneider Electric zone president UK and Ireland. ‘Night-time cityscapes make beautiful images that are more likely to be hung as art on walls or downloaded as wallpaper on electronic devices than viewed as a depiction of energy waste. It’s too easy to leave the office without switching the lights off, and this is just the one aspect of energy inefficiency that in the long run also costs businesses money and makes buildings less healthy and comfortable places to work in.
‘As the economy reignites and people head back to the office in greater numbers, wouldn’t it be incredible if we could avoid returning to previous levels of pollution and emissions, while also supporting better standards of public health? We need to address all this if we are to avoid going back to the bad old ways and build a truly green recovery.’
Build? It’s more like ‘rebuild’. In Europe, the European Commission (EC) aims to reboot the continent’s battered economy through its Renovation Wave strategy, which will double the rate of building renovation within the next 10 years as part of a green-economic recovery. The EC notes that buildings account for about 40% of the EU’s total energy consumption, yet barely 1% are renovated each year. This new initiative has earmarked about 35 million buildings for renovation. According to Signify (formerly Philips Lighting), lighting is the quickest, easiest and least-intrusive aspect of a building renovation.
In other words, whether you’re fixing old buildings or constructing new ones, energy-efficient lighting is an easy win.
Yet Signify insists that the EC’s building renovation strategy simply is not happening fast enough. ‘Two-thirds of all installed lighting is legacy technology,’ says Frank van der Vloed, market group leader for Signify’s business in Europe. ‘Across Europe there are 1.3 billion conventional light points that could be switched to LED. In many instances it’s as straightforward as changing a light bulb, but Europe needs to get up to speed and do so quickly.’
He adds that connecting light points to smart sensors, devices and software will drive further energy efficiencies. A luminaire fitted with smart sensors could, for example, brighten or dim in response to changing daylight conditions, or it could detect when people enter or leave a room and automatically switch the lights on or off. Van der Vloed points to the smart offices used by the Albertslund municipality in Copenhagen, Denmark, which uses Signify’s Interact Office management system to control 400 light points.
The system enables building managers to save on electricity costs while gaining valuable insights into energy use and space utilisation; while the office workers have the benefit of personalised lighting around their workspace through a smartphone app.
As SA’s office workers return to their open-plan desks and cubicles, maybe that’s the key to driving the local adoption of energy-efficient lighting solutions. Perhaps, by enabling managers to monitor and replace the existing lighting infrastructure, and by giving staff a personalised environment, building managers can optimise energy usage and reduce electricity wastage. The South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) is hoping to achieve the former with its new mobile app, designed especially for the SA market.
‘The app guides the user through a lighting energy audit of a building,’ says Karen Surridge, manager of SANEDI’s Renewable Energy Centre of Research and Development. ‘As you work your way through a building and its grounds, you count the lights and note their specs, thus gathering data that you enter into the app. The app then provides information on alternative lighting solutions, their cost, energy usage, the investment required and – importantly – the return on that investment in terms of energy and costs saved.’
The app was tested on a defence base near Pretoria, which has very specific lighting needs for security and surveillance. Surridge says that ‘initial auditing revealed that the base could save as much as R20 000 a year, with an ROI of less than 12 months, should the base choose to implement all the app suggestions’.
That’s just the start of the possibilities. Energy-efficient lighting technology has moved beyond simply replacing standard incandescent bulbs with something friendlier to the environment. Swedish lighting company BrainLit recently launched its BioCentric Lighting system, which takes office lighting to sci-fi levels. The technology, created by Bluetooth innovator Tord Wingren, is an office-lighting system that learns from and responds to an individual’s unique biology. (It also includes UV disinfection lighting that eliminates indoor pathogens such as COVID-19, because … of course it does.)
It uses wearable tech, LED luminaires, cloud computing, AI, smart sensors and IoT controls to adapt the indoor lighting to match the room occupant’s needs and synchronise their office lighting with their body’s circadian rhythm. The result, BrainLit promises, is better sleep, immune response, alertness and mood.
Eeva Hayashi, head of business and partner development, technology promotion at Sony, was one of the first people to try it out. She reports experiencing all of those benefits, adding that ‘many of us are aware of how the positive impacts of natural light impact our mood and productivity. Desks beside windows are the most coveted seating in an office, and external meeting rooms tend to have large windows to make sure they get good natural light. Until now, however, there was little to no real technical solution that addressed our body’s innate needs for the right kind of light during different times of the day while we are indoors. After having experienced BioCentric Lighting by optimising my body’s circadian rhythm indoors, there is no way for me to go back to conventional indoor lighting’.
While that level of personalised lighting may seem out of reach for most SA offices, it offers a glimpse of what’s possible with smart, connected lighting solutions. And, if nothing else, it’s an indication that in the near future, you won’t have to worry about remembering to switch off the lights when you’re the last person to leave the office.