Signify’s Harry Verhaar on renewable energy transition

As Head of Global Public and Government Affairs for Signify, Harry Verhaar explains the importance of implementing energy efficiency initiatives

Since the end of 2003, Harry Verhaar has played a pivotal role in creating and driving Signify's lighting strategy focused on energy and climate change. His strategic approach has sparked a global movement towards the phase-out of outdated lighting technologies, marking a significant transition within the lighting sector towards more sustainable solutions.

Harry's influence extends beyond Signify as he actively participates in various partnership networks, including prominent organisations such as The Climate Group, the Corporate Leaders Group Europe, the European Alliance to Save Energy, and the World Green Building Council.

Within Signify, Harry Verhaar assumes responsibility for the company's public and government affairs function. As the company’s Head of Global Public and Government Affairs, his primary focus lies on addressing climate change and fostering more sustainable development. This involves engaging in thought leadership activities and advocating for policies such as the European Green Deal and similar initiatives implemented in different regions and countries worldwide. Additionally, he oversees the implementation of concurrent deployment programmes, with a particular emphasis on Signify's Green Switch programme, which was introduced a few years ago.

Why do you believe that lighting should be a starting point when implementing energy efficiency initiatives?

The IPCC Climate Change 2023 report has offered the world a stark reminder of what is at stake if we fail to take urgent climate action – the trick is how.

In consecutive COP meetings, we have yet to see the necessary leap forward in progress that will keep global warming within the science-based 1.5ºC target. At COP27, the conference concluded with talk of phasing down rather than phasing out coal, and little mention of oil and gas. The transition to green energy and a green economy can take root in our cities. The time has come to focus on solutions and action rather than problems and potential. 

Signify has a clear message to bring one of those solutions into sharp focus: energy efficiency now. Energy efficiency has clear and tangible benefits and there is one area in which cities can take quick action to reduce both emissions and costs – lighting.

Approximately 35% of the world’s lighting points are still conventional. In Europe and the UK, which lag behind much of Asia in the switch to greener lighting, this figure is even higher at 50%. What it also demonstrates, though, is the huge potential for a transition in the coming years. With the adoption of technology such as smart LED lighting, cities are not only taking immediate action to improve the quality of their environment, they are becoming more economical for the future in terms of the social, financial and ecological benefits they’re providing. For example, the World Council on City Data shows LED implementation can reduce night-time traffic incidents by about 30%, and reduce street crime by 20%. 

In Europe, 50% of the current installed base is still conventional lighting technology across places like offices, schools, and warehouses. That provides a huge opportunity to improve energy efficiency through lighting networks – an improvement that can be made both quickly and unobtrusively because it doesn’t require the breaking open of existing infrastructure to any great degree.

How can energy efficiency measures like retrofitting smart LEDs contribute to green impacts across society when combined with the transition to renewable energy? 

Smart LED lighting has the highest relative cost savings of any replacement technology. In Europe, this amounts to a saving of €65bn depending on energy rates, and also brings the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by 51 million tonnes. Meanwhile, switching all the light points in the UK alone, could reduce CO2 emissions by 3.9 million tonnes, the amount of emissions that 175 million trees could sequester in a year.

Making the switch would also generate electricity savings of 16.1 TWh, which is equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of more than 4.3 million households. In both cases, those savings bring the potential to bolster capacity in energy networks for other purposes. By transitioning to LED lighting at scale, we can save enough energy for initiatives like heat pump installations, EV charging and many more. The possibilities are then endless.

When it comes to the retrofitting of smart LEDs, what challenges can be expected in terms of implementation? 

The transition to energy efficiency takes an integrated approach at all levels of government and society, and cannot be achieved without a clear, cohesive and long-term plan. National governments must agree on targets for carbon reduction and energy saving, but the action and the work to achieve them ultimately takes place in cities. 

If we build the agenda on what needs to be saved and reduced, we can then extrapolate the plan to different sectors to assess the work that must be done. It’s only then that we gain a clearer understanding of what needs to be done, by who, and by when, including numbers on job creation in different sectors, new curriculums in education, and the application of new technologies like AI and IoT.

A cohesive energy transition plan built in this way cannot ignore the potential of energy efficiency. Renewables and energy efficiency combined can create a transition to a decarbonised society that is twice as fast and twice as cheap, because the clean energy being generated is not being wasted in offsetting fossil fuels, it is going much further in powering more efficient homes and buildings.

We are still in the relatively early stages of a transition that truly accounts for renewables and energy efficiency together, but the potential to integrate these as outlined above demonstrates the value of a path forward that improves not just the environment, but the economy and our society.

Could you explain the potential carbon savings that can be achieved through the widespread adoption of smart LEDs? 

Smart LED lighting has the highest relative cost saving of any replacement technology. Switching all the light points in the UK alone, could reduce CO2 emissions by 3.9 million tonnes, the amount of emissions that 175 million trees could sequester in a year. Making the switch would also generate electricity savings of 16.1 TWh, which is equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of more than 4.3 million households. In both cases, those savings bring the potential to bolster capacity in energy networks for other purposes.

Cities are facing pressure to electrify public services and amenities, such as transport and heating, as part of their climate action push. The average electricity consumption for a European household is approximately 3,400kW/h – roughly the same amount of electricity it would take to charge an electric vehicle to travel 10,000 miles in a year. By transitioning to LED lighting at scale, we can save enough energy to power almost 50 million heat pumps or charge 55 million electric vehicles for a year. For an average British household, switching to LED lighting can help save up to £250 per year (i.e., £15-£18 per light bulb). These savings are bound to increase with every change in the price cap.

The numbers speak for themselves.

Why is crucial for the government to take immediate action? 

Decarbonising the UK’s built environment is a significant challenge that also comes with major opportunities – accelerating the adoption of energy-efficient solutions, products, and job creation. The government set out the Green Homes Grant – which was scrapped and also scaled down the fund for decarbonisation. Not too long ago, the government announced the Heat and Buildings Strategy, which is a step in the right direction, it is simply not enough and is not designed for quick or big wins. 

The government needs to encourage energy-efficient retrofits in the built environment and better plan new infrastructure development with a focus on technologies that can expedite the reduction of carbon emissions. 

In terms of encouraging the switch more broadly in cities among citizens, subsidies can be very effective but only when rolled out in the right way. In the current energy crisis, governments are implementing schemes to subsidise energy bills for consumers and businesses continuously. This is little more than a sticking plaster and, as a business model, is completely unsustainable for the long term.

For example, households in the UK receive a subsidy of £400 for a period of 6 months. While this is great to boost citizen confidence, it will not impact reducing energy or carbon emissions. It doesn’t necessarily bring about energy savings and doesn’t treat the root cause of the problem. At some point, subsidies will need to be paid back and the lighting will need to be replaced so municipalities or building owners effectively have to deal with the problem twice. 

Instead, what if the subsidy were switched out for a retrofitting measure, like LED lamps. It provides immediate energy – and cost-savings and means you only have to deal with the problem once. For example, if you provided 10,000 households with five LED lamps to replace traditional lighting in their homes, the collective energy bill savings would increase manifold. Additionally, energy savings would total 4,372 MWh (equivalent to the annual recharging of 2,144 electric cars), and would result in 1,115 fewer tonnes of CO2 being emitted (equal to the amount captured by 20,000 trees) for Europe.

Do you believe that the benefits of energy-efficient lighting can be replicated in other countries and regions?

Yes, and I not only believe this, but we see it happening around us as we speak. We organise our efforts through our Green Switch programme and following Europe, we launched this last year in the US (for cultural reasons we renamed it Brighten America) and in China, while we are working with other regions and countries on their programmes. 

From a broader perspective, we see that the quest for sustainable development is turning into a race to the future. I personally believe that sustainability is just another word for innovation, so taking it from such a positive and competitive angle will hopefully lead to much-needed acceleration. I was once asked at one of the COP meetings if I was an optimist or a pessimist. My reply was that I am a concerned optimist. I’m an optimist because all those who innovate more climate-friendly technologies (energy efficiency; renewables; EV’s etc) are unstoppable but I am concerned as we are moving too slowly. We need to quickly switch gears and double the speed of action in every area. This is not only possible as solutions exist and bring multiple benefits but is also the most significant responsibility that we and public sector leaders have towards the younger generations whose future needs to be safeguarded.


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