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Connected Homes May 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Kyle M. Whitman

Inexpensive Connected Lightbulbs

Why is this topic significant?

Several manufacturers now offer high-quality, network-connected LED lightbulbs at price points low enough to be competitive with conventional LED bulbs of equivalent quality. Various usability and connectivity issues prevent these new bulbs from being truly plug-and-play smart-lighting solutions, however.

Description

A niche of home users enjoy the benefits of smart-lighting solutions comprising several network-connected LED lightbulbs and a hub device that acts as a bridge to the home network. Users can control the bulbs using any number of mobile applications and hardware devices. Although many such solutions have been available from a variety of manufacturers, only Philips's Hue smart-lighting solution has thus far enjoyed a standout reputation for high quality, reliability, and usability. But Hue's very high cost (typical starter systems cost about $200 for three smart bulbs and a hub) has had limited adoption.

Since Hue's 2012 release, conventional LED bulbs have fallen in price very significantly, with some high-quality brands selling for about $7 per bulb. Although Hue's high price point persists, a number of manufacturers, including Philips, have recently begun offering network-connected lightbulbs at price points between $15 and $30 per bulb. Other manufacturers include Cree, General Electric (GE), and Osram. Unlike the original Hue bulbs, these new low-cost smart bulbs do not offer RGB color-changing capability; instead, light output generally is fixed at a single warm-white color temperature. Some Osram bulbs, however, let users tune the white light to four color temperatures ranging from cool-white to warm-white.

Implications

The new low-cost smart LED bulbs have apparently eliminated many quality issues, such as low light output, that plagued such bulbs in the past. Bulbs typically use Zigbee radios for communication and generally are compatible with various hub devices from different manufacturers. But official support for hub devices tends to vary from one manufacturer to another. GE, for example, officially supports Wink's home-automation hub device, although users report being able to get GE bulbs working with a variety of other hubs, including Philips's Hue Bridge, the SmartThings Hub, and various other hubs with Zigbee support. The need to purchase a hub can increase the cost of adopting smart bulbs significantly—for example, the SmartThings Hub costs $99—but some of the new low-cost smart bulbs are available in packages with relatively inexpensive, albeit limited, hubs.

Impacts/Disruptions

Although the price-per-bulb of smart LED lighting systems has gone down, the systems have not yet become inexpensive and simple enough for mass-market appeal. Reports from early adopters indicate that the low-cost systems have the same sorts of usability issues that have long held back do-it-yourself home-automation products. Many users also dislike the idea that, unless they spend even more to buy a manual controller peripheral (such as a key fob) that connects to the control hub, they must launch a smartphone application to turn lights on or off remotely. To find mass-market success, future inexpensive smart bulbs may need to demonstrate improved compatibility with standard wall switches and eliminate the need for control hubs.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Home automation, mobile devices, mobile integration

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Tesla Powerwall

Why is this topic significant?

Electric-vehicle maker Tesla will begin offering a self-contained home backup-power solution—Powerwall—that incorporates many advanced features not available in competing solutions. Tesla partner company SolarCity has announced plans to integrate the batteries into its home solar-energy installations and use them to create energy-sharing networks among neighboring homes.

Description

Powerwall uses lithium-ion batteries to store energy, and so it is far lighter and smaller than other home backup-power solutions with equivalent storage capacity and performance. A single Powerwall unit weighs 220 pounds and measures about 51 inches long by 34 inches wide by 7 inches deep. The unit is thus suitable for mounting on a home's interior or exterior wall. Powerwall units are for use in connection with a residential solar-power system; they contain hardware for handling DC power only and require a separate DC AC inverter to provide power for household use. (Typical home-solar installations include DC-AC inverters). Tesla intends for Powerwall units to provide power primarily for a household's day-to-day energy needs, essentially storing solar power during the day (when typical households use little energy) and releasing it to the household during the morning and evening hours (when energy use is highest). But Powerwall units can also function as home backup-power supplies for use during an outage.

SolarCity will begin integrating Powerwall units into its residential solar-power installations in several US states beginning in October 2015. The integrated systems will use SolarCity's proprietary technology to manage a home's energy use in such a way as to maximize the proportion of solar energy that a household uses in a given day. SolarCity's systems can connect to a home's broadband connection, enabling users to monitor their systems remotely using mobile applications.

Implications

The April 2013 Viewpoints discussed home backup-power systems, which can help keep a home—and its network-connected devices—functioning during extended power outages, for example as a result of natural disasters or electrical grid disruptions. Tesla's Powerwall units are relatively inexpensive ($3,500 for a 10 kWh unit) and could power homes indefinitely, provided ample solar power is available and households minimize electricity consumption. A typical US home uses almost 30 kWh per day, so a single Powerwall unit might not be enough to run a household for more than a few hours in some circumstances. But in many regions, average household electricity use is far less than 30 kWh per day, notably in California.

Impacts/Disruptions

Analysts contend that a home solar-power system that equips Powerwall would likely result in little if any net cost savings to a household over the system's life (primarily because electricity in the US is so inexpensive). Diffusion of such systems will thus likely remain limited to high-resource individuals who prize the environmental benefits that come from minimizing use of grid-delivered electricity. Such diffusion patterns might actually prove beneficial for SolarCity's plans to use the network connectivity features of their systems to integrate neighborhoods into virtual microgrids. Many potential early adopters may already live in the same neighborhoods, making virtual microgrids relatively easy to set up.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Solar power, smart grids, electricity generation, electricity distribution, broadband connectivity, home automation, demand-response, smart homes, smart buildings, mobile integration

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: