08/31/2010 02:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Saving the Planet With the Flick of a Switch

I'm beginning to think that even Sarah Palin's "real Americans" are starting to get it. Granted, it is taking manmade ecological disasters like the BP oil spill to nudge the masses along, but even from my perch on the outskirts of traditionally enviro-resistant Motor City, it is apparent to me that the American masses have begun to embrace and understand the desire and need for wide-scale adoption of clean energy and clean technology.

We, as a nation, have come a long way in the last 15 years since I was a campaigner and policy advocate -- walking the halls of Congress or going door to door on the streets of numerous cities across America for the Sierra Club. Back then when I talked to people about the importance of breaking away from fossil fuels or embracing new "green" technologies, a significant amount of people quickly dismissed my ideas as "liberal crazy talk" (one particular guy in Texas City, Texas, chose to express his dismissal with a Smith & Wesson in my face -- no joke). Yet today, phrases like "clean energy" and "green technology" seem to easily roll off the tongues of politicians, business leaders and even us average Joes (and quite possibly even those who pull guns on people who knock on their doors -- one can always hope). We, the people, are starting to get it... and that gives me reason to smile.

While I am excited that we have some momentum behind the transition of becoming a clean tech society, I am fearful that the rising tide of increased public support for clean tech could be squandered. I believe there is a real risk that the long-term adoption cycles of most clean energy/clean tech advancements could leave the American populace and media, (and their inherent desire for immediate gratification), disenchanted, unsatisfied or worse, eventually turned against clean tech efforts. The transition to a "smart grid," electric cars and a clean-energy economy will certainly be measured in years, (if not decades) -- certainly not within the real-time, 24/7 news cycles that we have grown accustomed to. To prevent this potential frustration with clean tech's relative slow pace of change, what we need in the short term is a fast, cheap and easy (and effective) clean-tech solution that capitalizes on the swelling public support for clean technology -- ideally, a brightly visible indicator that we are indeed "greening" the planet. Something that we can do NOW. Enter stage left: LED lighting...

LED lighting technology is available today in numerous applications and can be installed immediately, cost effectively and is often as simple as switching out a light bulb. LED lighting for nearly all lighting applications (particularly outdoor lighting) is worth cheering for a number of reasons:
• LED lights use less energy -- LED technology uses 25-40% of the energy of most existing lights. For many cities, lighting electricity expenses are a major component of their annual budget - big savings here help fill holes in shrinking municipal budgets;
• LEDs last much longer -- quality LED lamps should last 2-4 times longer than current lights - and when the maintenance cost of changing a light bulb on a 40-foot pole over a four-lane road is considered, less bulb/lamp changing translates into huge savings for municipalities and taxpayers;
• Brighter light/safer -- LED light is a brighter white than the sickly yellow glow of high pressure sodium or some metal halides. Brighter light means better visibility for drivers and potentially less crime in our neighborhoods;
• Less light pollution -- ever notice the difference in the night sky of a city or suburb compared to the star-filled heavens of a rural area? It's called light pollution, and LEDs and their more directional properties do a better job keeping light where it is meant to be (on the ground and not in the atmosphere);
• LEDs can be networked, dimmed, flashed and controlled from a central location - imagine a giant dimming switch for the entire city that could be controlled from a laptop. The flexible functionality of LED lights can save even more money and enhance public safety. These networking technologies can be quite complex and impressive - one of our portfolio companies, has a unique approach to this smart grid technology if you want to check it out (Relume); and,
• Easy and immediate impact -- the cost-effective technology is available now. Cities, corporations, hospitals and universities can start reaping the benefits immediately.

The widespread adoption of LED lighting technology has been a bit of a desired futuristic fantasy of mine that didn't seem quite possible any time soon, like time travel, robots that do the dishes or a Chicago Cubs World Series victory (admittedly, I have some geeky and, in the case of the Cubs, hopeless, fantasies). In the recent past, LED technology has either been ridiculously expensive or not been robust enough or to consider as a realistic replacement of existing lamps... but things are rapidly changing, particularly in the outdoor lighting sector. In fact, I believe a "Perfect Storm" of positivity is forming on the horizon for outdoor LED lighting and its arrival will be a "win-win-win" for municipalities, citizens and the Earth -- woo hoo! Viva, technology!