Company puts Caribbean island in new light

When the Southern Caribbean island of Aruba started looking for a way to replace its aging street lamps in 2010, the country came to see the light in more ways than one.

A supplier from Halifax, N.S., called LED Roadway Lighting Ltd. was offering a unique product that would switch Aruba’s traditional high-pressure sodium lamps to fixtures based on light-emitting diode (LED) technology. LED technology uses less than half the energy, lasts four times as long and produces a better quality of illumination.

Though it was a compelling equation for Aruba, a Dutch island in the Lesser Antilles, the product was new, its up-front cost was higher than the existing technology and the small Atlantic Canada company was relatively unknown in the market, common challenges in the nascent clean technology sector.

This was a good place for the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) to get involved. Trade commissioners in Halifax as well as in Caracas, Venezuela—the office responsible for Aruba—and in The Hague, Netherlands, began helping the private company make the case for its promising product. Canadian representatives in The Hague oversee political relations with the island country.

Supporting information was provided, meetings were arranged and letters from senior Canadian officials were drafted in a process that took several years and was ultimately successful in convincing the Aruban power utility to go with LED Roadway’s new lamps.

“It was a multi-pronged approach,” recalls Jeff Libis, global vice-president of sales for the company, who feels that the service has been instrumental in LED Roadway’s international success. “The TCS has done a great job of getting into these key markets and in selling Canada.”

Aruba opted for a demonstration for the project in 2012, using 500 of LED Roadway’s LED lamps. In 2015, the island converted the rest of its street lamp network and more, using a total of 12,000 fixtures, a contract valued at more than $6 million. It not only replaced all of the island’s street lights with the LED technology, but also used the resulting savings from lower energy and maintenance costs to extend the new lamps to about 20 percent of the island that previously had not been lit at night.

“There's a world of opportunities out there for Canadian clean technology companies, especially under the framework and resources that the Government of Canada has made available,” says Libis.

The company grew out of a contract electronics manufacturing and design facility in Amherst, NS, called C-Vision Ltd. Its founder, Chuck Cartmill, developed the idea in 2006 for the LED street lamp. A local demonstration project using the technology was conducted with the assistance of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and Nova Scotia Business Inc., a government agency in the province, and then the company started looking for customers.

Facts about LED street lamps

How they work:

The LED fixture is not a bulb but a solid-state device. It includes a series of LEDs and a power supply set in a cast aluminum shell. In a typical cobra-shaped lighting pole, the head is removed and the new fixture is inserted.

While the up-front capital cost of LEDs is significantly greater than traditional high-pressure sodium street lamps, they produce substantial savings over their lifetime.

Darkening the night sky:

Anyone who has flown over a city at night or star-gazed from an urban backyard has seen the lightening effect of street lamps on the night sky. High-pressure sodium fixtures radiate light high into the air, have hot-spots around them, as seen from above, and glare into bedrooms and other unwanted places on the ground. This creates wasted light and it wastes energy to produce that light.

LED street lights direct the beam along the roadway or sidewalk, reducing light pollution.

They just fade away:

Unlike conventional bulbs with filaments, ballasts and lenses that can pop, fizzle and fail all at once, solid-state LED fixtures typically do not burn out, instead dimming as they age, becoming fainter over the years. Eventually they degrade to such a point that the fading is noticeable to the human eye and the unit must be replaced.

Most high-pressure sodium lights are rated such that 50 percent of the fixtures will burn out after five years. The LED Roadway fixtures, however, are designed to maintain their required light output for 20 years before being replaced.

Today LED Roadway is exporting to 66 countries around the world—20 of them in the Caribbean region alone, which Libis attributes to the success of the Aruba project—and growing. Half of its business is in Canada and half is international, he says. The company has 250 employees at its Halifax headquarters and Amherst manufacturing plant, as well as regional manufacturing plants and partners around the world.

Beyond the fact that its street lamps are low-energy, long-life and environmentally sound, the company has also shifted into new green uses for the technology, such as equipping the fixtures with wireless control systems that monitor their energy consumption. They can have sensors that measure traffic flow, for example, or so they can be dimmed or turned off when there is no movement on a road, bringing further energy savings. Networks of the ubiquitous lamps are also becoming the functional backbone of “smart city” systems. For example, they can be outfitted with receivers to collect data such as the readings from each home’s electricity, water and gas meters throughout a neighbourhood.

This all started with making the business case for the technology in Aruba. Libis notes that there are many instances where the “first line of adapters” for clean technology is in the developing world, in countries with infrastructure that is “somewhat antiquated” and need to be updated, often with assistance from international finance institutions or multilateral banks.

He says it helps that street lighting is prevalent and considered an essential service. “It’s up close and personal and it has a big impact,” he says, as opposed to clean technologies installed in a landfill site or sewage plant. “Conversion to LED creates a good public relations story: it is infrastructure that voters can see.”

Victor Stott, a trade commissioner in Caracas, began helping LED Roadway with its efforts in Aruba in 2010, when the authorities were evaluating different technologies to upgrade their street lamps. The TCS responded with a “collaborative effort” on behalf of LED Roadway. As the trade commissioner helping Canadian companies involved in transportation (“clean technology” was not yet a stand-alone sector), he found out who the key players were in Aruba, looked for necessary technical information and promoted LED Roadway as a high-quality, reliable company, attributes that were reinforced in a letter of support from Canada’s ambassador to The Hague delivered to the Aruban utility.

“It gives an extra push for any project to show that this is a respected company in Canada,” says Stott. The timing of the street lamp replacement project was also fortunate, with Aruba, which depends heavily on tourism, making ambitious commitments to use renewable energy, he notes. “They’re moving in the right direction…Having a green footprint is becoming more and more important to tourists.”

He advises Canadian clean technology companies that “you have to have a good research and development team with a highly developed product that outsells and outshines your competitors.” It’s also critical to be present in target markets and exercise patience, he adds. “If you’re looking for a quick turnaround, maybe your focus should be elsewhere.”

Libis says that LED Roadway’s export strategy focuses on aligning itself with the TCS as well as the Export Development Corporation (EDC) and the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) to qualify in new marketplaces, identify potential partners and engage with customers there. “Those resources have been absolutely invaluable market to market,” he comments. “We would not be in 66 countries in only seven or eight years if we did not have access to the TCS, EDC and CCC.”

A major challenge for Canadian clean technology companies is the long lead time needed to sell their products, he allows, given the fact that the products and services they offer can have substantial life-cycles. “Although customers have become more educated on the technology and they are making decisions faster,” he says. “But there was a blank slate in the early days.”

Making the business case for clean technology involves calculating its “total cost of ownership,” which means stating the benefits of the technology, such as the longer life, lower energy consumption and enhanced lighting characteristics of LEDs. “You extract as much value as you can and pass the resulting savings to the customer,” Libis explains. “You can’t just focus on up-front price.”

It’s critical to capture the attention of potential customers and focus on different ways to arrive at their business case. “It’s how you evaluate price. In our perspective, our product is the lowest-cost product because you’re getting value over time,” Libis says.

“Half the battle is getting them to listen,” he advises. “That’s where the TCS and other Canadian government resources come into play.”

Libis says LED Roadway finds that potential international customers are especially impressed to learn about Atlantic Canada, from the innovative clean technology that has come out of the region to the friendliness of its people. “If we can bring them into the country and they get to know Halifax and visit our facilities, they become our clients in the future…We have an almost 100 percent hit rate,” he says.

“I’m always impressed with Canada’s reception; the image and the reputation that Canada has in the global marketplace is incredible,” he comments. “The fact that we’re a Canadian company is a huge benefit as we grow in the export market.”

Allison MacKenzie, a trade commissioner for clean technology in the Atlantic region, says that “clean technology is still very much an emerging sector,” but it’s growing quickly, and Canadian companies in traditional fields can often find a place in it. For example, they can focus on enhancing energy efficiency, reducing the impact on the environment and adding smart networks in existing products and services.

“There are a lot of opportunities around clean technology and improving the world that we live in. The sky’s the limit,” she says, noting that small Canadian companies can find it especially challenging to scale-up from the research-and-development phase, to gain access to capital and finally commercialize their products. “The TCS is there to support them and open doors wherever possible.”

It’s also important that the company continues to innovate and has expanded its focus, she adds. “It’s grown from being an efficient street lighting company to playing a critical role in smart cities and smart networks.”

Libis finds there is sometimes a “novelty factor” in his firm being on the leading edge of a technology such as smart LED street lamps. “I’ve heard a lot of comments that it’s really nice to see a Canadian company at the front of the room making presentations,” he says. “Everywhere we go, we find a positive response, open doors and countries that are interested in working with Canadian companies and Canadian technologies.”

LED Roadway’s product has achieved “quantifiable, measurable benefits and social benefits” in Aruba, Libis says, indeed a documentary film has been made showing that the new LED lamps have transformed neighbourhoods that were previously dark at night. “People started coming out of their homes and sitting on their lawns and balconies, talking and getting to know each other,” he says. “There was a perceived sense of security and safety. It created this social fabric that never existed before.”

Beyond its immediate economic and social advantages, “one of the benefits of working in clean technology is you’re bringing good value to the global economy and the world in general,” Libis says. “You’re part of a business sector that has a lot of potential to add value as well.”

LED Roadway is still exploring opportunities in additional parts of the Caribbean. For example, it is currently working on developing a new project in Trinidad, and it is active farther afield, in markets such as in Southeast Asia and Africa. It has found a renewed interest in its products in Europe, which is highly competitive but has become “more open to us as a business” under the new Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Libis says that LED technology continues to evolve, with the light output, efficiencies and reliability of the street lamps his company produces advancing annually, which reinforces the importance of utilities investing in its modular lighting platforms.

The success of the LED Roadway project in Aruba has continued to be a focal point, Libis comments. “Now there are people from the utility in Aruba flying around the world, talking about their success with this Canadian company,” he says, noting that three additional clean technology firms from Canada have found a market for their products in Aruba on the heels of the LED Roadway project there.

Libis hopes the success of the LED Roadway technology elsewhere will enhance opportunities for Canadian clean technology companies. “It’s great to be out there interacting with the world marketplace and bringing technology from Canada,” he remarks.

“I’m proud to be a part of this Canadian evolution that’s happening in the clean technology sector on the global stage,” he adds. “There’s a level of trust, there’s a level of reputation...The Canadian brand is strong.”

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