Smart Streetlights are the Tip of the Spear for Smart Cities

Andrew Keatts | @Andy_Keatts | December 3, 2015

Image via flickr/Carmine.shot

Image via flickr/Carmine.shot

It’s the first step for cities looking to grab the “smart cities” mantle: smart streetlights.

Leaders nationwide are looking to deploy digital technologies around their cities to collect data and improve basic services. The so-called smart cities movement is, thus far, characterized first and foremost by smart streetlights.

“This is a technology that’s a perfect fit; any city thinking of smart technology or energy efficiency should be considering it,” said Stuart Cowan, chief scientist at Smart Cities Council, an advocacy group for companies that sell smart infrastructure.

A survey last year of 204 cities conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found 82 percent of those responding had already adopted higher-tech street lighting, like LEDs. That topped the list of all technologies cities had adopted, including the ever-popular low-energy building.

Of course, there’s a range of ways cities can improve their lighting, from switching to efficient systems to adopting high-tech sensors.

At the simplest end, cities can switch to fixtures with LED lighting. It’s the most-adopted system, and it has reduced cities’ costs of powering lights between 40 percent and 60 percent while cutting carbon emissions, reducing maintenance needs, and brightening streets to make for a safer pedestrian experience.

Last year, for example, Houston struck a deal with transmission company Center Point Energy to replace all 165,000 of its streetlights with LEDs over five years in a move expected to cut the lights’ electricity use in half.

Cities can also opt for remote control of lighting levels for each fixture from a central area, allowing cities to dim lights when roads are empty, for instance, and increase them when cars arrive. That could ramp up savings into the 80 percent area, Cowan said.

“The reason those projects happen is, the benefits are clear and manageable,” Cowan said.

The payback time on the upfront investment ranges between four and six years, which often allows cities to finance the expenditure by shifting money from the operating budget to the capital budget.

“I hate the term ‘no brainer,’ but this is one of the few ‘no brainers’ out there,” said David Graham, deputy chief operating officer in San Diego, which has implemented two different smart streetlight programs.

San Diego has replaced 4,000 lights around the city, saving an estimated $250,000, or 60 percent of the lights’ energy costs, per year.

It also has a pilot program with GE to put more fine-tuned controls and environmental censors on 40 lights around the city’s downtown.

Typically, Graham said, cities pay utilities a flat fee to power each light fixture. When cities control those lights on their own, however, they’re likely to reduce energy usage and save money.

But the most exciting promise for smart lights – what helped land them in the World Economic Forum’s “top ten urban innovations” list – comes from all the non-lighting functions they can fill.

The lowest hanging fruit of that group, Cowan said, is equipping each light with wi-fi. Cities can cheaply use streetlights to create a meshed, citywide wi-fi network. By doing so, they can provide free wi-fi to residents in an effort to bridge the digital divide, or they can charge residents a small fee for access, which can help bolster the case for investments.

Other high-tech streetlight add-ons involve more debate.

Cities can equip each streetlight with sensors that record a range of factors about the environment around them.

For instance, sensors atop streetlights could alert cities – and eventually citizens, through apps developed by third-parties – where parking is available on their street. Or more importantly, they could help address safety issues by alerting officials when a semi-truck is parked in a red zone. San Diego’s pilot program is testing just that, Graham said.

They could even further, too. In Chicago, a $3.1 million test program funded by the National Science Foundation called “Array of Things” is providing a glimpse of the future. Traffic lights throughout the city are equipped with environmental sensors that measure temperature, barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, pedestrian, and vehicle traffic and surface temperature.

Kansas City has an ambitious sensor program as well, as does Barcelona.

Rob Mitchum, a spokesman at Chicago’s Computation Institute, which is one of the lead research groups working on the Chicago project, said the block-by-block collection of such data would give researchers an unprecedented data set on climate variations throughout the city based on its built environment.

“It’s a unique project, because it’s funding the development of an urban instrument,” he said. “They aren’t funding (just) what we’re studying, but the future study in many disciplines, almost like funding the creation of a particle accelerator.”

Potentially, the sensors could power things like mapping programs that tell asthmatic pedestrians the cleanest route to a destination. Or they could hook up to personal fitness trackers to give residents daily reports exposure to certain pollutants.

“That’s the low hanging fruit, but it’s all open-sourced so people will come up with plenty of other things,” he said. Researchers believe there are even more applications of the technology that they have yet to dream up.

But the program operators emphasizes they’re measuring environmental factors and broad, citywide trends. It’s not looking into specific individuals. All the data it collects is being regularly reviewed by a privacy and security oversight committee.

That’s important. Potentially, some fear, we could make a leap from placing sensors atop streetlights to placing cameras on them. The technology, theoretically, could be used as a form of surveillance to to provide predictive analytics focused on crime. Indeed, many of the headlines published after the program was announced focused on that angle. “Chicago Gets a New Surveillance System Straight Out of a Video Game,” The Atlantic wrote last year.

“As a streetlight becomes aware of its surroundings, you want it to not be intrusive and still help public safety,” said Cowan, of Smart Cities. “There’s a conversation between privacy versus security, and that’ll play out differently in different cities.”

His organization offers a guide offering a list of practices so streetlights don’t become a focused surveillance system.

Mitchum said Chicago’s Array of Things is focused on talking to residents to ensure they’re on-board with everything researchers are doing.

“We need to constantly monitor what people do with the data and work with the city on what is appropriate and what isn’t, and talk to residents about what isn’t appropriate,” he said. “We want people to trust in it and see value. There’s always a trade off between benefits and risks.”

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