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Zero hero

Issue 48 Apr / May 2009

Wayne Howell of Artistic Licence explains an exciting new idea for zero carbon media façade lighting.

Opinion piece you said …  media façade lighting … Oh yes, plenty of opinions on that, but I’m fundamentally biased. My company does media façade lighting; we make money from it. Am I still allowed an opinion piece? Apparently yes!

OK, the aesthetics. Frankly you either like it or you don’t. Done well, I feel it can add to a city’s skyline. Take Hong Kong Harbour: I love it. Perhaps a little over the top but it has attitude and makes a statement. I was recently involved in the MBLD designed Pan Peninsula project in the Docklands (see this issue for the story). I think this is London’s first big façade lighting statement. I like it, I enjoyed programming it and it does add to London’s skyline.

So aesthetics apart, in an age where Carbon Footprint is king, can we justify this type of frivolity? I believe that with clever use of technology, not only can we justify but we can turn many such installations into net power generators for their buildings. A transition from frivolity to function.

There are relatively simple means by which we can improve energy efficiency. How many installations have we seen where effort has been put into energy management, only to be destroyed by the ‘cleaner’ button which switches all the lights to full and often stays that way till dawn. Tighter integration between lighting control and building management is the key. I recently designed the control system for the Speirs and Major external lighting system at the O2. In this we automated all power breakers and controlled them from the lighting system. This allowed us to actually power down equipment when not in use; no more racks of switch mode power supplies on standby all night!

But I’m still talking of saving power. What about the key question of whether we can justify using power for aesthetic lighting? The majority of apparently ‘green’ lighting products we see come to market are green by luck rather than judgement. Often the simple use of LED is considered enough to classify products as ‘green’ in marketing terms.

Last year I kicked off a research project at Artistic Licence which we call the ‘Zero Carbon Project’. Why? Two main reasons: A long held belief that micro-power generation is the way forward and a frustration that our industry seems to largely be taking a blinkered view of reducing carbon footprint. I honestly think we are in a unique position to make a real difference.

So what is Micro Power Generation? Simply to generate power at a local level rather than centrally. The majority of countries worldwide use large centralised power stations and distribute the power over a grid system. This system is inefficient as significant energy is lost in the distribution system. It also has the worst possible failure mode in that a single power station shutdown will affect tens of thousands of homes and businesses. MPG is a concept whereby power is generated locally, perhaps by every home and business. Excess power is fed back into the grid distribution system for use by others.

The Zero Carbon Project is aimed at taking a more holistic approach to the subject. The core idea is to develop façade lighting that not only uses no power but is in fact a net power generator. The project is bigger than this with an end game of developing intelligent materials that can be used to clad building surfaces for both illumination and power generation.

Some attempts to make lighting locally powered have been seen. Whilst some successes exist, these are usually based on simple concepts such as charging a battery from solar power for the product’s own use. Apart from the limited approach, the use of batteries for power storage make it impossible to achieve a truly zero carbon design.

The Zero Carbon Project combines the concept of Micro Power Generation and façade lighting to develop lighting which will form an intelligent power generating skin for a building. The city power distribution grid will form the power storage method allowing power to be consumed when it cannot be micro generated and power to be fed into the grid at other times. The user will effectively be able to ‘dial in’ the carbon footprint they wish to achieve.

You may well ask: Is this not just a flowery description for putting a few solar panels on the installation? I believe not. Sure, solar power is a key element, but only one.

Power generation technologies have evolved significantly over recent years and numerous sources are now widely available. The obvious source is solar power and it is likely to make up a significant percentage of power generated. But there is a bigger picture. Take thermoelectric power generation. The average façade light has three key directions of thermal input: a) heat from the sun; b) from energy exiting the building through the insulation; and c) that generated by the electronics itself.

Power can be generated anywhere there exists a difference in temperature. Most electronics designers will be familiar with the peltier module – a clever device that can either be used to generate power from a thermal difference or can use power to cool. Recent years have seen major improvements in the technology and nano-technology has shown significant improvements in yield. Recent work by Boukai and colleagues at Caltech has shown that silicon nanowires can be an effective thermoelectric generator – opening a new potential technology.

There are many other potential forms of micro power generation that can be harnessed. Artistic Licence has recently prototyped an intelligent paving slab. It generates power when walked on. It is early days and we are still looking at the best form of power generation. Currently piezo crystal looks most promising. Others are working on similar concepts: Ealing council in West London recently secured funding to install power generating speed bumps on a trial basis. The numbers are significant: A steady stream of traffic can generate between 10 and 36kW of power. Potentially ten of these devices could generate as much power as a wind turbine. The break even point on capital investment looks to be around four years; it’s viable. Imagine our intelligent paving slab installed throughout the country, or roads paved with similar technology…

So why write about this? Why not develop away, patent it all and build the products? Well, apart from the fact that anyone who has worked with me will know I consider patents to be at best a very blunt instrument, this project is bigger than that. It needs the involvement of many companies, our trade organisations and our government. I am sure there are other people working on concepts similar to those I’ve listed, let’s work together and pool both knowledge and development. I believe that currently there is too much talk about carbon footprint and not enough action. Take the recent controversy generated by Professor Pielke, an interesting philosophical debate I am sure, but focused on how we count carbon emissions rather than how we actually do something about it!

So, we’re working on a range of concepts and prototypes. We want to make this an industry wide project, so send your expression of interest to:


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