PlanLED Sees a Bright Future

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Feeling sleepy at work?

Blame it on the lighting.

A growing body of research suggests that yellow-toned lighting, which leads the brain to think it’s the end of the day, makes people sleepy. NASA uses this effect in spacecraft to induce drowsiness in astronauts. Blue-toned lighting, on the other hand, mimics daylight and tends to perk people up.

While most people buy LED (light-emitting diode) lights because they use substantially less electricity than traditional lights and can save money on utility bills, PlanLED in Federal Way has developed a thriving business offering lighting systems that can reduce electricity costs while also addressing specific behavioral needs.

PlanLED CEO John Hwang says human-centered lighting can reduce health care costs, help teachers get more from their students, boost productivity among office workers, relax patients in hospital waiting rooms and put residents of elder-care homes in the mood to retire for the night. 

“When workers in offices are exposed to yellow-toned lighting,” Hwang explains, “the body never gets the signal that it’s time to work.” To deliver just the right systems, Hwang has forged collaborative relationships with LED manufacturers and installers as well as with scientists studying the impact of light on human behavior.

In the most visible such collaboration to date, PlandLED designed and arranged for the installation of the new LED lights at Safeco Field this year. The lights not only slashed electricity bills — the savings will more than cover the cost of purchase and installation in two years — they’re also expected to improve the fan and player experience. 

PlanLED built its strategy on the 1998 discovery of melanopsin, a light receptor in the retina that helps us sense what time of day or year it is. If you want to make someone more alert, says Steven Lockley, a Harvard Medical School neuroscientist who is on PlanLED’s advisory board, you want to expose people to blue-toned light. Blue light suppresses melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep cycles.

Lockley says PlanLED is one of a handful of companies he consults with that is taking advantage of the impact of lighting on human behavior. “We’re past due for a change in lighting,” he asserts. “We’re right at the start of what will probably be a revolution.”

In Hwang’s estimation, the need for lighting that positively influences human behavior is clear. “We know we’re all too sleepy,” he says, “[and as a result] we’re all consuming way too much caffeine. [Better lighting] is not good for Starbucks, but it’s good for all of us.”

If you want to relax, on the other hand, you should use yellow-hued lighting that mimics dusk. At night, Hwang says, people shouldn’t expose themselves too much to the light from computers, tablets and TVs because the blue light they emit makes it harder to sleep.

The lighting from LED bulbs is unique in its ability to provide different levels of “color” and “temperature.” It can be adjusted — as one would use a thermostat to regulate heat or cooling — to encourage the desired human response.

One of the largest areas of opportunity for PlanLED in that regard, Hwang says, is health care — hospitals, hospice centers, retirement homes — where lighting can enhance human health and development. Lockley says the right lighting not only can help round-the-clock workers in these environments, but he adds it can also slow dementia, reduce depression, speed healing and aid patients undergoing chemotherapy or recovering from traumatic brain injury.

Education is another area bright with possibility. A pilot lighting program in the Renton School District had PlanLED’s tunable lighting system installed in four kindergarten and two special education classrooms in the past year. Teachers could adjust the lighting to blue when they wanted focus and productivity from their students and yellow when they needed the pupils to calm down.

Jonathan Stine, program manager of the district’s energy management office says that, after receiving positive feedback from teachers, the district is now working to install the lighting in all of its high school classrooms.

For much of his career, Hwang worked as a financial consultant, a job that seemed to him like “reading a script” and left him feeling unfulfilled. During the 2008 financial collapse, an investment client asked him to evaluate a business idea that involved developing LED lighting systems. Hwang soon determined that the business offered huge opportunities, particularly if he could take advantage of research and join with other industry players. Rather than make his own LEDs, Hwang collaborates with manufacturers in South Korea. On the research side, he works closely with scientists like Lockley. 

While most lighting entrepreneurs focus on the energy efficiency of LED lights, Hwang prefers to venture beyond the immediate benefits and looks at the innovation possible in the field. He sees PlanLED as a hub where important players can collaborate to improve the lighting culture. “I don’t just want the [business] transaction,” he says. “I want relationships with people who care.”

One client that cared was the Seattle Mariners baseball team. PlanLED’s biggest stage so far is the Mariners’ home stadium, Safeco Field, which became the first Major League Baseball venue to be equipped with LED lighting. The Mariners wanted to replace Safeco Field’s old metal halide lighting system, which cost $30,000 a year in maintenance and an additional $50,000 every three years for lamp replacement, according to Joe Myhra, vice president of ballpark operations at Safeco Field. 

Myhra says the Mariners were impressed with PlanLED’s approach taking not just energy efficiency into account but also equipment longevity and human benefits. Two years ago, the team worked with PlanLED to replace the fluorescent lighting in Safeco Field’s clubhouse as well as its training and weight rooms with a tunable lighting system that could be customized to player needs before and after games. “We can mimic what we would consider the ideal light environment for humans,” Hwang told The New York Times at the time. “It’s the introductory level, but we feel it’s historic.”

Given the Mariners’ performance in 2014 — their best finish in seven years — you’d think the organization would be serenading Hwang with a lusty rendition of “You Light Up My Life.” But the team’s desultory performance this past season suggests there’s more to baseball than cool lighting before the game and warm lighting after.

Still, the Mariners are believers. After testing which LED lights would work best in the field for TV broadcasting, says Myhra, Safeco’s 2,000-watt metal halide lamps were replaced last January with 800-watt GigaTera LED fixtures made by KMW Inc. of South Korea. Myhra expects the new system to cut energy use by 60 percent this year compared to 2014. And since the new lights only have to be replaced every 30 years, labor and replacement costs will be far lower, too. The lighting can also be customized with the click of a mouse. “It’s been outstanding,” Myhra says.

Hwang says PlanLED is now talking with at least 10 other sports organizations from different leagues about changing their venues’ lighting systems. The New York Yankees announced in June that they would employ PlanLED to outfit the new Yankee Stadium, only 6 years old, with new lighting.
Energy efficiency of the systems is particularly attractive to teams belonging to the Green Sports Alliance, which was cofounded by Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen and the Natural Resource Defense Council and strives to promote sustainable communities.

Planled is not necessarily focused on sports, but Hwang acknowledges the Safeco Field project has proved to be highly visible showcase. Still, not everyone is sold on Hwang’s notion of human-centered lighting. Maury Wright, editor-in-chief of industry publication LEDs Magazine, says behavioral lighting remains a niche market limited to a few specialized companies like PlanLED. Large lighting companies like Philips and GE, he notes, are only “nibbling on the edges of it right now. They’re not convinced their money would be well spent [in human-centered lighting].”

Some, for example, question whether the human impact is as significant as Lockley and others claim. “More people say we don’t understand enough of it yet,” says Wright. Another concern is the high sticker price of installation and the additional complication posed by making a lighting system customizable. “It’s prohibitively expensive today,” Wright declares.

PlanLED has anticipated this challenge by introducing tunable adapter kits that can be installed in existing light fixtures. The equipment turns a half-hour light replacement job into five minutes and reduces the wattage from 90 to 25, Hwang says.

The company has also developed a software system that substantially reduces the time and money required to design a lighting scheme. A project that once took 90 days to design can now be done in a day on a tablet device, Hwang notes.
Hwang says PlanLED is in “growth mode.” He expects the company’s annual revenue to rise from an estimated $20 million this year to $100 million next year. The rapid growth, Hwang says, will come from market acceptance of human-centered lighting technology and the potential of a largely “untapped market.”

Hwang plans new PlanLED showrooms on the East Coast, in northern California and in the Midwest. And Lockley predicts human-centered lighting will show up in forms we might only ascribe to science fiction right now, with walls, floors and wearable devices such as watches emitting light that is tunable to our circadian needs. Light delivery, Lockley says, will become automated, and devices will be able to detect when we’re short on sleep and blast us with blue light to perk us up.
“How we deliver light will change dramatically in the next decade,” Lockley promises.

If only it could deliver the Mariners to the World Series… 

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