Street Lighting: The Future is Smart

by | Nov 15, 2021 | News

Photo Credit: Zhang Kaiyy

The EU wants Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent, cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by 55% in 2030 from 1990 levels, and reaching net zero by mid-century. To achieve that, it plans to spend 1 trillion euros ($1.17 trillion) in sustainable investments over the next decade, as well as at least 100 billion euros through 2027 to support workers in regions most affected by the green transition. Analysts predict that as much as 89% of the planet’s 363 million streetlights will have adopted LED technology by 2027. It makes financial sense. The switch to LED represents an effective reduction in costs, maintenance, and environmental degradation. Updating to more robust and resilient technology seems innocuous enough, but LED installation represents a golden opportunity for smart city planners. What many local authorities are missing, however, is that the switch to LED bulbs offers the opportunity to jointly transition to a smart street lighting system. Analysts reports posit that just 29% of the global total of LED bulbs will have installed smart lighting features within the next decade.

Bright street lighting improves road safety, helps to reduce crime, and makes cities more vibrant and attractive places for both businesses and communities. Traditional street lights, however, are a massive drain on public finances and a major contributor towards climate change. To save money and meet a growing public demand for energy efficiency, cities around the world are in the process of replacing old street lights with low-power LEDs. But this upgrade can’t be the end of the story for 21st century lighting systems. Even if modern cities never sleep, the people who live in them do, and lights don’t need to shine at the same intensity throughout the night. In the smart cities of the future, we need a way to manage when – and how brightly – public lights shine.

Electrical lighting is possibly the single most underrated technological advancement – Those of us living today, or at least most of us, just do not comprehend just how massive electrical lighting was, back when it was invented. Humans as a species are just not anywhere close to effective when our sense of vision is taken out of the equation. When man freed himself from the gigantic constraint of being tied to the sun’s schedule, practically everything about human life changed over the next century. Today, the entire world, even those parts of it that are hamstrung by abject poverty, have come to take public lighting for granted. Sure they may not be as thoroughly distributed or even continuously powered, but the point is they are an indispensable part of modern human life.

Not many of us spare much of a thought for the humble streetlight. Chances are, you never really knew that even today, street lighting represents a huge chunk of practically any municipality or local council’s budget – The idea here is to bring our attention to something that nearly everyone of us takes for granted. When we think “innovation”, “disruption”, “optimisation” – let’s face it – street lights are not what come to our minds. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do through this post. When we talk about making human civilization more sustainable and more efficient, it’s got everything to do with making the things around us a little better. Sure, this may not sound as cool or be as moving as impassioned speeches made in front of famous gatherings about how we’re being irresponsible as a race – but, the only way we actually make a difference is by looking at the little things around us that could be made better and actually finding ways to do that.

To us, if we haven’t said it ad nauseam already, wireless sensing is where it’s at. Wireless sensing remains the best hope we’ve got in being able to design the systems of the future. In a nutshell, the problem wireless sensing aims to solve is this – there are a lot of gaping inefficiencies in the way we’ve organised things around us. That’s all too understandable though – we just made them up on the go and kept doing our best to not let things crash. Wireless sensing and IoT technology make systems less haphazard and more connected, by facilitating a free flow of information all throughout the system. IoT based systems encourage efficiency, minimalism and elegance. Moreover, these systems can progressively get better over time, by implementing incremental improvements based on accrued feedback. Here, we thought we’d focus on one of these everyday aspects of human life that can be made infinitely more efficient using wireless sensing technology – In this post, we’ll go over some of the most difficult challenges involved in the seemingly mundane enterprise of lighting up our streets – and how IoT, like it does with everything else, is disrupting this space like nobody’s business.

Photo Credit: Telha

Lighting up entire cities, throughout nights, every night, must cost serious money. After all, there are times when just our personal electricity bill is a bit too steep for our comfort – forget about entire cities, highway systems – well, you get the gist. So, that brings us to our first major problem with “dumb” street lighting. The traditional model of street lighting is one of the biggest expenditures in any local body’s budget. Hundreds if not thousands of bulbs that are just left to do their business through the long nights. You’d have to agree that this model sounds like it’s pretty wasteful. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there’s got to be some way to make this more efficient. To make matters worse, there’s not that much energy going around to begin with. The math is pretty simple to be fair – Rampant industrial growth + exploding population = energy crisis. If we don’t get our act together, the future might very possibly be dark. Literally dark. Not having enough energy means what energy is available comes at a premium.

Today, there are more instances of renewable energy sources being used, especially in wealthy countries. But no, this doesn’t solve the problem that we highlighted. First of all, alternative energy sources are not nearly as widespread as most people think. Secondly, they’re very expensive – it’s not a coincidence that you don’t hear about how Chad or Somalia just decided to go coal-free from 2030. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, the problem of inefficiency still remains. Fixing where and how we get the energy is just one part of the riddle – the part where leaving all the streetlights on all of the time is egregiously wasteful is quite another.

In addition to being very expensive, which is no small problem, regular streetlights are also quite environmentally costly – According to the United Nations, over 68% of the global population will have moved to urban conurbations by the year 2050. Streetlighting is another major contributor to CO2 emissions – because there are so many of them dotting highways, tunnels etc etc, and traditionally, they are just on through nights, they are a major emissions culprit. We’ll leave the intricacies and finer details of this for another post. For now, suffice it to say that the way we’ve been lighting up our streets is not just expensive and wasteful, it is also not very ecologically sensible. It’s very clear then there’s a lot that can be improved about the way we light up our public spaces. So, where does wireless sensing fit into all of this? Let’s dive right into the world of connected street lighting. The internet keeps all of us and our things connected all of the time. Or at least, that’s where things are headed. And streetlights are no exception.

Photo Credit: Grooveland Designs

The foundational premise for smart streetlights is to optimise electricity consumption. That was the idea behind “smart” streetlights when people first started working on them. It’s based on a fairly simple idea – what if all the streetlights in a system were connected to each other and could actively exchange information in order to optimise their consumption to match real-time demand? It took a while for technology to catch up with the idea, but today it would seem we are there. A reputed research firm estimates that there will be over 100 million LED streetlights deployed all over the world in the next couple of years. So, the jury is out – this nutty-sounding idea is not only real but is also a winner.

Well, for starters, even though such systems are expensive to install, the payoffs are massive – Smart street lighting systems could account for savings of anywhere from 50% to 75% over conventional streetlighting systems. But believe it or not, this is just the tip of the iceberg. When implemented as part of a larger “smart” network, like a smart city or smart roadway system, there is no telling what connected streetlights could bring to the table – pardon the cliche, but the sky truly is the limit.

Here is a quick list of what these systems could realistically be capable of: air pollution monitoring, traffic regulation, public internet access, surveillance, crime monitoring etc. The last one is considerable in fact – There is understandably a huge link between street lighting and incidence of crime – this one’s fairly obvious. Smart streetlighting systems could account for a 10% drop in crime rate, according to Silver Spring Networks.

Intelligent public lighting systems are cropping up in major urban areas all over the world. If anything, these early usecases just corroborate the claims that have been made about these systems for years now. Chicago leads the way in the use of IoT in street lights. The American city has announced a plan to invest a mammoth $160 million in replacing over 85% of the city’s public lights. The mayor of Chicago expects this investment to pay off very soon, with a projected 50-70% reduction in energy costs.

Los Angeles has already deployed wireless sensors in over 80% of its roadways. These connected light systems boast of LED bulbs and high speed data connectivity, as well as wireless sensors that are capable of identifying gunshots and other instances of violent crime. In the very first year of use, the city council has reported a 63% reduction in energy expenditure. The proof, as they say, seems to be in the pudding. This brings us to our favourite topic – wireless sensors and batteries are a match made in hell.

And if at all there is a use-case for wireless sensors that seems tailor-made to highlight this problem, it is this. Think about it, if you’re going to invest a ridiculous amount of money into installing entire cities’ worth of smart lights, it would make no sense for the hundreds of thousands (if not more) of sensors in these systems to be battery-powered.

Is smart street lighting the answer?…Alone, smart lighting systems turn a city’s lighting grid into one centrally controlled network; each individual light able to be modified as a single element, or part of the wider system. Lighting, of course, is paramount to a city experience; improving safety both for pedestrians and vehicles, enhancing areas of beauty or high tourism footfall, and generally keeping the city running in hours of darkness. A smarter street lighting system offers the opportunity to control the output of each and every light; brightening in areas of high crime, or being programmed to respond to pedestrian or vehicle activity. It also offers the chance for each light to be individually monitored and maintained, meaning technicians need not be needlessly called out to manually check the health of each bulb.

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of automation and resiliency for cities, but reduced municipal budgets mean that access to financing through ESCOs (energy service companies) and other third parties is increasingly important. Likewise, a phased-in approach to smart cities that starts with smart streetlighting before proceeding to other applications and a focus on choosing interoperable software platforms that can serve multiple smart city segments are also key trends that have only become more salient in the past year.

With modern day metropolises, half of a city’s energy budget is from public lighting – for example public offices, schools and outdoor lighting. On average, energy savings of 40 per cent are made possible simply by switching to energyefficient lighting technologies such as LED. On a global level, that means potential savings of around €128 billion (USD 140 billion) in reduced electricity cost, or 670 million tons of CO2 (the equivalent annual output of 642 power plants). With so much of the global population living in cities, municipalities will have to offer welcoming atmospheres to attract residents, visitors and industry. In short, cities themselves will have to become brands. High-quality, intelligent lighting helps make a city safer and more attractive, enhancing its brand identity — the distinctive signature that defines its appeal and differentiates it from other cities.

We are living in an unprecedented urban moment of opportunity. We should seize this moment and position humanity and the city at the heart of growth and development.

This article was originally featured in the October issue of designing lighting (dl).