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Lights Off

August 27, 2010
by Catriona Stuart

Charlie Huizenga can’t walk into a building without noticing wasted energy.

“Just look down the hall here in Wurster,” he says, pointing down an empty but fully lit hallway in exasperation. “There’s a whole string of lights on that don’t need to be on.”

This bothers Huizenga, a researcher at the Center for the Built Environment who studies ways to design and operate buildings to use less energy. So he developed a new solution: a remote-controlled light switch. Give office workers the power to control their own lights, he says, and they will use less energy than the always-on, always-off choice of lighting in most offices.

Huizenga swings himself onto a table and removes the cover to a fluorescent light above our heads. All it takes is a small, radio-controlled “switch” between the bulb’s end and the fixture to adjust each light individually, he says.

Though high-tech nanotechnology and “smart dust” have been used to address this same energy problem, Huizenga’s research shows that simpler, low-tech solutions can be just as effective and cheaper.

Huizenga tested his invention on his coworkers first. In his office, one woman who sat near a sunlit window preferred to leave her light off. Another turned her light on, but only when she was doing paperwork. Two who sat on the darker side of the room used their lights most of the day, but one worked in the office only half time. His colleagues didn’t have to change their daily routines, Huizenga says, but they cut their energy use by 40 percent.

Since lighting can consume up to half the energy used in commercial buildings, Huizenga’s device attracted two Haas Business School graduates, Josh Mooney and Zach Gentry, who were interested in starting up a “green” company. The three formed Adura Technologies and set out to make an affordable version of Huizenga’s gizmo for the commercial market.

The initial prototypes were pretty crude, says Huizenga: four wires and a circuit board wrapped inside a strip of cardboard and held together by some electrical tape and solder. The refined design is sleeker and resembles a small, white mouse—a plastic box with several wires dangling from one end like a tail.

A test in Berkeley’s Marchant Building last July revealed lighting use dropped 65 percent. Paul Black, manager of utilities engineering for the Berkeley campus, expressed interest in purchasing the technology for the rest of the campus, so long as Adura can keep the cost per unit down. Right now each switch costs about $100, though Gentry hopes to bring the cost down to $25. Black says the energy savings for the campus could add up to tens of thousands of dollars a year.

The next step for Adura, however, is to find a sexier name for the product. “We don’t really have a cool, zippy marketing name for it,” says Mooney. “We’ve just been calling it ‘wireless lighting control system.'”

From the May June 2006 What’s Happened to the Animals of Yosemite issue of California.

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