Sensors drafted to turn off lights nationwide

The Energy Department wants to cut down energy consumption by turning off the lights when you leave the room.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
2 min read
The U.S. Department of Energy is investing millions of dollars in one of Mom's favorite habits: turning off the lights when no one is in the room.

The Energy Department has linked up with sensor specialist Dust Networks and SVA Lighting USA on a program that, by 2010, aims to cut the amount of energy used to keep building lights on in half.

One of the first stages will involve creating a wireless, automatic lighting control system that can be inserted into buildings without expensive rewiring or remodeling.

Light in residential and commercial buildings accounts for about 30 percent of the energy consumed in buildings. Acutely tuning lights to when people actually need it could cut energy consumption by $8 billion a year, according to the Energy Department.

America?s buildings use more than 30 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs, or quads) of energy per year, department figures show. A quad of energy is enough power to run all the residential refrigerators in the United States for a year. Without energy conservation technologies, energy use could reach about 40 quads by 2020. The lighting project is one of 13 building efficiency-focused experiments at the Energy Department to be funded by $30 million from public and private sources.

The sensor systems essentially monitor activity and traffic in rooms. If people--which, to a sensor, are just blobs--leave, the sensors send a signal to the network to turn down or turn off the lights. Creating mesh networks for connecting sensors and integrating the sensors into existing building lighting systems are some of the technical challenges.

Rob Conant, vice president of business development at Dust, said the company hopes to have a working demonstration of a building that incorporates such automatic light switchers by this summer.

Researchers and futurists have predicted that sensor networks will ultimately become pervasive, serving to monitor building traffic, unclog freeways or aid security cameras. Commercial acceptance, however, has moved fairly gradually and has garnered criticism from privacy advocates along the way.

Earlier this week, Dust also announced that it has secured $22 million in venture funding, bringing the total investment in the Berkeley, Calif.-based company to $30 million.