Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) are now a ubiquitous part of modern life. OLEDs are flat light sources that can display different colors, unlike the single-point, monochromatic light source of a traditional LED. I’ve got an OLED in my pocket right now in the form of my phone display screen. In addition to phone display screens, OLED digital photo frames and even TVs have begun to appear on the market. Because they provide unlimited viewing angles, high-quality color, and good contrast as well as being lightweight with a thin profile, we’ll undoubtedly see OLEDs continue to proliferate. But perhaps the most compelling aspect of OLEDs is their physical flexibility, as Sony demonstrates in this video:
Cell phone displays and photo frames might seem like minor niches, but I think OLEDs have the potential to completely revolutionize our traditional notions of lighting technology. Like its cousin, traditional LED technology, OLEDs have been increasing in efficiency over the years while prices have been dropping. In fact, sheets of OLEDs are starting to be used for general illumination.
This year at LightFair, we spotted one recently commercialized product, made by Acuity Brands, which might provide a peek into what the future of lighting could look like. Acuity’s product is an OLED sheet that dims, moves, and flexes by sensing users’ hand motions. Check it out:
As with any technology paradigm shift, OLEDs will allow for new lighting applications that we never would have dreamed of a few years ago, such as:
- Softly glowing restaurant tables and walls
- Ceiling light panels that turn into TV sets for watching in bed
- Billboards that flex and bend as you drive past
- Venue lighting that dances with musicians as they play
The sky’s the limit.
And therein lies the problem. If OLEDs continue to make efficiency and price gains (and by all accounts, they’re expected to do just that), I think utilities will naturally want to consider including them in demand-side management (DSM) portfolios or recommending to their customers as a high-efficiency technology. But do all of these potential new uses mean that we’re standing on the threshold of a much more lit-up world? Will we start sticking these things all over office buildings, parking lots, homes, schools, and stores? Will utilities be in the awkward position of trying to promote a technology that’s more efficient but also lends itself to many more uses than traditional technologies?
If OLEDs catch on as a general-illumination light source, DSM departments may need to completely rethink how they treat lighting technologies. Rather than simply recommending something that’s high efficiency, DSM staff might have to develop lighting programs that are built around whole-building evaluations of appropriate technologies, applications, light levels, and user needs. Making all rebates and incentives essentially custom could increase the amount of work required to administer a lighting program—and increase the headaches. Of course, if utilities stand on the sidelines as a new technology family sweeps into our homes and businesses, the headaches could be even worse.
We certainly have a handful of years before a glowing lost-puppy flyer pinned to a telephone pole becomes commonplace, but the recent advances in OLEDs remind us that it’s never too early to start thinking about our bright, bright future.
To read more about the flexible Acuity Brands OLED product and a number of other new products we saw at LightFair, members of the E Source Technology Assessment Service and Energy Managers’ Network can check out LEDs and More: A Report from LightFair 2012 or join us for our Tech Roundup web conference on July 31, 2012.