Can LED Bulbs Make Nuclear Plants Obsolete

Businesses, voters, utilities and politicians will be asking that question–or an equivalent form of it—several times over the next two decades. Should they invest in technology and projects that generate power or into products like solid-state lights or dynamic air conditioners that conserve electricity?

By a sheer coincidence, LED lights and nuclear power provide an intriguing way to study the issue. Nuclear power plants generate approximately 19% of the electric power in the U.S. Lighting accounts for approximately 19% of the power used.  Thus, you can argue the fleet of 104 commercial nuclear reactors exists to keep the

lights on. If you want to increase functional capacity by 20 percent, you can build 21 nuclear reactors or reduce light power by 20 percent.

The picture stays roughly the same when you look globally. Worldwide, lighting accounting for 19% of power consumption while nuclear generates 12.3 percent of the world’s power generation from 434 nuclear reactors. Global electrical use will climb 93 percent between 2010 and 2040 to 39 trillion kilowatt hours while, electric light output is expected to nearly double, from 113 petalumens in 2000 to 217 petalumens by 2030. Lighting and power move hand in hand.

So what’s the logical thing to do? Spoiler alert—bulbs win hands down. The Department of Energy estimates that solid-state lighting is already on track to cut lighting power by 46%.

“In 2030, the annual site energy savings due to the increased penetration of LED lighting is estimated to be approximately 300 terawatt-hours, the equivalent annual electrical output of about fifty 1,000-megawatt power plants,” the DOE estimates.

Put another way, if you could install these anticipated LED lighting systems overnight—and the only impediment to that would be finding enough bulbs—you could mothball 44 reactors by the end of the year and/or postpone any new plants for decades.

Even more aggressive measures could further reduce the need for nuclear. Case studies that show that networked controls combined with LEDs can cut power by 80 to 90 percent, or another 35 to 45 power plants. With smart lights and a computerized Clapper, we’ve already whacked out nearly the entire reactor fleet.

Would lighting be more cost-effective? Yes, by a wide margin. Georgia Power is in the midst of trying to bring two nuclear power reactors online. The estimated budget is currently $14 billion, or $900 million over earlier estimates, and the project has been delayed to 2017 or 2018. Earlier this month, Westinghouse, which is building the reactor, filed a lawsuit against Georgia Power.

Finland’s Olkiluoto, a 1.6 gigawatt plant originally slated for completion in 2009, won’t likely go live until 2016.

Compare that to lighting. The cost of the primary component package for making LED bulbs fell from $13 per kilolumens to $6 per kilolumen from 2010 to 2011. In 2012, Lux Research predicted LED bulb prices would drop by 50% to hit $11 by 2020. But, oops, it’s already happened. Several vendors sell 60 watt equivalent bulbs for $12 to $10.

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