The difference between today's manufacturing plants and those of the 1940s is night and day. Sophisticated robots that swivel and bend and do most everything else wheel around the floor, replacing men in overalls. Factories that used to produce Packards are now popping out Priuses.
The lights that illuminate those warehouses, however, have not changed much in the last 70 years. They are "high-intensity-discharge" (HID) bulbs, and they produce luminescence through a simple design: electricity flowing between two electrodes in a glass chamber. If that description doesn't do anything for you, look up the next time you're in a Costco. Like most manufacturers and "big-box" retailers, that's what the company uses to light its stores.
"Literally lightning in a bottle" is how Kurt Buecheler, vice president of sales for Menlo Park-based HID Labs, describes the primitive technology. HID lights are so effective, producing a high-wattage beam that closely resembles sunlight, that the companies that use them are loathe to switch to anything else.
As it turns out, HID lamps also suck an incredible amount of energy. Electricity in the industrial sector accounts for nearly 14 percent of the country's end-use greenhouse gas emissions, according to information from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. HID lights are used in the vast majority of industrial-sector facilities, according to Mr. Buecheler.
While it's unlikely that manufacturers could be convinced to give up the lights they've relied upon for so long, HID Labs thinks it has found a way to reduce the energy used by high-intensity-discharge bulbs by 40 percent or more. Helmed by Menlo Park resident Antonio Espinosa, the company has created a device that plugs into existing HID light fixtures, making them brighter and more efficient. In the handful of warehouses where the company has tried the technology, it has reduced electricity consumption by up to 67 percent, according to Mr. Buecheler.
He calls lighting "one of the last bastions of low-tech" in the world of energy consumption.
A smart light
The new technology has made a big impression on the folks at TheatreWorks. The Menlo Park-based repertory has been using the lights in its sewing shop on Hamilton Court since November 2008.
Energy costs have dropped by 25 percent, and the lights are brighter and more faithful to sunlight than the traditional metal halide lamps the company previously used, said assistant production manager Jim Gross. The costume manager doesn't have to take costumes out in the sunlight anymore to tell what color they are, he said. "Our costume storage manager came back thrilled, because for the first time in years, she was able to look at two piece of clothing and tell which one is black, and which one is navy."
The product HID Labs makes substitutes for a simple transformer. Equipped with a circuit board, the device changes the shape of the frequency of energy coming into the light fixture, allowing for about a 10 percent increase in wattage. It also allows the bulb to turn on in a way that keeps degradation to a minimum, giving it a longer shelf life and keeping the light intensity high over time.
The combination of these factors allows manufacturers to replace their 400-watt bulbs with 250-watt bulbs, according to Mr. Buecheler, accounting for most of the energy savings.
The fact that the bulbs wouldn't have to be replaced as often is a major consideration when it comes to cost, Mr. Buecheler says, considering that changing bulbs in a warehouse with high ceilings is a labor-intensive process. And fewer fixtures would have to be installed in new facilities, because the modified lamps provide more light.
It would take a company retrofitting its warehouse between 6 and 24 months to recoup its investment, HID Labs estimates.
The device also allows facility managers to set up an automatic system to dim or brighten each bulb, depending on a number of factors, such as how much sunlight is coming through the windows, or where workers are on the floor something that isn't possible with standard HID lamps.
The image of row after row of overhead bulbs thumping to life in a warehouse? This would be more like a light show, at glacial speed.
The system does, however, have its limits. You probably wouldn't want high-intensity-discharge bulbs in your home, for instance, unless you happen to have 50-foot-high ceilings. You could almost see Mr. Gross' brow furrow when he was asked over the phone whether TheatreWorks planned to use the lamps on the stage.