Growing business opportunities in home lighting, heating

Growing business opportunities in home lighting, heating

A ban on incandescent light bulbs took effect in the European Union last month, making more efficient lighting technologies -- including compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) and light emitting diodes (LEDs) -- standard across Europe. Such a milestone reminds us that market shifts -- whether spurred by regulation or innovation -- open up new opportunities for businesses to sell greener products and services to consumers.

Many of these emerging opportunities focus on efficient home energy solutions for consumers. Here are two that businesses should consider:

Next-generation lighting

The European Union isn't the only region phasing out traditional incandescent lightbulbs. In 2007, the United States passed a similar regulation (PDF) that effectively eliminates many of those bulbs by January of 2014. Initially, this mandate spurred demand for CFLs, likely from niche consumers willing to pay a higher price for an emerging technology that promised lower electrical usage and longer product life. But, since 2008, CFL purchases have declined each year, despite a precipitous drop in price. 

Today, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, two thirds of the energy savings potential (PDF) from CFLs has yet to be realized. As such, with the U.S. pulling out of the recession and consumers more willing to open their wallets, businesses have an opportunity to spur demand for next-generation lighting products.

Retailers are showing renewed interest in efficient bulbs. Ace Hardware, for example, recently declared Oct. 18 to be Annual Light Bulb Day to raise national awareness for CFLs and other lighting technologies. It also offered discounts on purchases to motivate foot traffic and drive sales. 

Alternatively, Ikea has chosen to bypass CFLs: It plans to stock LEDs exclusively by 2016 because it believes the rapidly evolving technology will likely outperform CFLs in the near future. By picking a winner in the lighting category, IKEA generated a lot of buzz for its stores and interest in this emerging technology.

Utilities and utility regulatory boards are also spurring demand as they comply with state energy-efficiency mandates. For example, Efficiency Vermont, an organization authorized and funded by the Vermont Public Service Board to promote energy efficiency, launched a successful campaign to increase the use of CFLs. The campaign tackled the perception that CFLs were more expensive by advertising 99-cent bulbs available at participating retailers. It also created a sense of urgency (“good while supplies last”) to drive demand. The campaign was so successful that it doubled the number of CFLs sold per month.

Photo of CFL bulb by Sideways Design via Shutterstock.

Natural-gas home heating

Meanwhile, another home-energy opportunity is emerging: converting home heating systems from heating oil to natural gas. Not only would shifting to natural gas greatly reduce carbon emissions and improve local air quality, but -- in most cases where gas lines are nearby -- would also generate very positive returns for homeowners.

Technology innovation is precipitating this opportunity by unlocking vast amounts of natural gas in shale formations across the country. Many such formations are concentrated in the northeast, a region that historically has relied more on heating oil, partly because of the region's limited pipeline capacity for bringing gas from the Gulf of Mexico. With natural gas supplies increasing, the residential price has dropped dramatically from its peak in 2005-2006. 

Simultaneously, the residential price of heating oil has grown dramatically, providing even more incentive for households to switch to natural gas. In fact, according to the Energy Department, the average heating-oil-heated household now spends more than three times as much on heating ($2,298) as the average natural-gas-heated household ($724).

Of course, many of the developments in natural gas are the result of hydrofracking, a controversial extraction process. Many believe that hydrofracking risks contaminating aquifers used for drinking water, although the degree of risk is up for debate. And while greener fracking technologies are emerging, they haven't yet reached commercial scale. Still, the benefits of shifting away from heating oil to natural gas may outweigh the costs.

If shale gas extraction continues, there are many ways that businesses can promote natural gas conversion to consumers. Certainly, energy companies can motivate their own customers to make the switch through the use of incentives. Utilities such as Con Edison are already helping to coordinate clusters of property owners to convert together, thereby lowering the upfront costs for individual customers.

Banks also can promote natural gas conversions by extending loans to help consumers make the switch. One such loan program by People’s United Bank covers the upfront conversion costs for Southern Connecticut Gas and Connecticut Natural Gas customers.  

Market shifts in regulation and technology are enabling new opportunities to provide efficient home energy solutions for consumers. Many businesses are already starting to take advantage of this. Those that aren’t yet should take note: As the U.S. continues to emerge from the recession, consumer appetite for such solutions is only likely to increase.