Street Lighting – Illuminating Smart Cities And Society

- May 16, 2019-

If the term “smart” were to be used in its purest sense, smart street lighting has been around for a millennium – starting with a very human face. Until the 20th century, it was human beings that managed lighting, setting about each evening and morning to turn lamps on and off, and maintaining this early part of what would form a vital part of what was to become the electricity grid.

The electric street lighting system

A lot changed. At the turn of the 20th century, electrified street lighting was well on its way, and fell under the authority of electric utilities and local councils. This meant that lighting could be remotely controlled from a single source, and linked to season-based schedules, requiring only that faults be reported by either residents or the council.

These steps forward were significant, and one of the first major steps in the automation of city-level electrical infrastructure, but it created problems too. For example, faults such as faulty bulbs, storm or weather damage or even regular maintenance meant mobilising manpower, which was time consuming and expensive. As the 20th century wore on, and as manufacturing and management became more automated, the labour cost factor as well as time became challenges.

Non-working street lights affected a lot more than just a utility’s bottom-line however, it affected society even more greatly. Damaged street lighting would affect pedestrian and motorist safety, and business operations would be impacted.

Street lighting is also one of heaviest consumers of electricity – and the bill for this “unmetered consumption” ultimately falls on the customer. Until recently, consumption like this could only be measured periodically, and mostly, inaccurately.

The bulbs used until recently were inefficient – generating large amounts of lost heat energy, and are being replaced by much more efficient LED lighting. These factors resulted in excess cost.

Until as recently as ten years ago these problems were global, but the advent of more advanced grid communications, where two-way communications between utilities and assets became possible has opened the way to future smart cities, and smarter utilities.  

The internet of things (IoT) means that almost any electronic device can communicate with other assets, or utility or municipal management. The rollout of smart metering has been one example of the modern grid, where consumption data is shared wirelessly and instantly, thanks to technologies cellular and radio technologies like Sigfox, LoRa and Wi-fi.

The benefits to cities, utilities and citizens globally:

Utilities quickly realised that this kind of automated grid communications held greater potential - it could connect major elements of city infrastructure at every level at which utilities have control, and new areas of potential growth. Water management, power outage management, microgrids where consumers could sell power back to the utility and street lighting are just the immediate possibilities. In fact, reactive or proactive but labour-intensive and time-sensitive tasks could be streamlined and made much cost-effective, saving both the utility, and therefore, the customer, money.

For instance, a damaged street light can automatically report that a fault has occurred in the delivery of power, allowing for grid management software to re-route power to the street light, as part of a “self-healing” grid.

In the case of a damaged light, the asset would notify work crews immediately, so repairs can be scheduled and effected in less time, with less effort and expense. This also minimises the impact such a fault would have on society.

These technologies and solutions are all enablers of the next step modern settlements are taking – becoming truly smart cities, where road transport, smart buildings, electric vehicles (EVs) and charging infrastructure, and even monitoring air pollution are now part of the utility ecosystem.  

According to researchers at Navigant Research, a quarter of the 221 cities worldwide being tracked by its Smart City Tracker are rolling out smart street lighting initiatives.

In a recent webinar, we explored the role utilities have in ensuring these new technologies are adopted, and the central role utilities will play in the smart cities of the future, but the one major piece of infrastructure that will enable all of these technologies? Smart Street Lighting.

“With lower hardware costs, new streetlight tariff structures, and innovative financing mechanisms, LED and smart street lighting technology is now reaching even small and medium-sized cities. Smart streetlights are now well on their way to forming the backbone of larger smart city initiatives.” – Ben Gardner, President of the NorthEast Group

The potential:

Smart street lighting is being seen as the backbone from which these technologies can stem thanks to IoT. Hong Kong has recently started a smart street lighting pilot which features several of the technologies also being incorporated into other global initiatives, such as:

  • IoT-enabled smart sensors can communicate city data such as weather, air quality, temperature, and even foot and vehicle traffic to utilities and municipalities.

  • Electric vehicle charging can be incorporated into street lights, providing easy and convenient charging, given that EV’s have already reached equal pricing with petrol or diesel vehicles, and countries are outlawing fossil-fuelled transport in place of e-mobility solutions for public and private transport.

  • Services can also include Wi-Fi hotspots for use by consumers, or parking spot availability, and even public notices and advertising.

Lastly, smart street lights can be powered by renewable sources, such as solar or wind power, meaning they can be entirely self-powered, and even send excess power back to the utility, helping balance demand and make the grid more resilient.