Taking It to the Streets: Smart Cities, LEDs and Streetlights

An interesting phrase comes up frequently in the rapidly evolving streetlight market: “real estate.” Most of us see a streetlight as a utilitarian lighting fixture, but manufacturers, utilities and city managers see a business opportunity enabled by a vast network of powered, connected devices. With many municipalities now upgrading their fixtures’ high-pressure sodium (HPS) lamps to energy-efficient LEDs, this is a great time to maximize the value of all that real estate.

“We believe that a city’s streetlights … [are] a very special piece of real estate,” said Austin Ashe, general manager of intelligent cities, GE. For one thing, they already have an electrical connection.

“When you think about the cost of deploying systems outdoors, it’s challenging, so you’ve just saved an extraordinary amount of cost,” he said.

Plus, the height of the fixtures’ poles, typically between 15 and 45 feet, offers an ideal vantage point for a whole range of sensor and camera types.

“That’s a very interesting elevation,” Ashe said. “With the right sensor technology up there, you can gather a lot of metadata.” 

This includes everything from temperature and air quality to the level of traffic congestion. There’s also the issue of coverage, since these tall devices are deployed every 200 feet or so.

Making cities smarter

These advantages have caught the attention of the Smart Cities Council, an organization with members including electric utilities, digital and electrical equipment manufacturers, industry consultants and others. With a mission focused on streamlining city operations and making cities more livable for residents, the group sees urban streetlights becoming key enablers for a raft of new, connected technologies.

According to Jesse Berst, founder and chairman of the Smart Cities Council, streetlighting is emerging as the biggest “on-ramp” to the creation of smart cities.

“They’re everywhere, and they’ve got power,” he said. “The list of things you can do is long and getting longer, due to those two factors.”

An added plus is the proximity to other infrastructure, such as stoplights, roadways, sidewalks and bicycle lanes. It might sound a bit like Big Brother, but being able to monitor and communicate data such as pedestrian and vehicle traffic could be quite valuable to both local government and area businesses.

“In Glasgow [Scotland], the city is opening up the data to determine the city’s ‘busy-ness’ index,” said Brandon Davito, vice president for smart cities and streetlights, Silver Spring Networks, San Jose, Calif. “People are using that to baseline individual retailer performance. That’s just an interesting opportunity.”

LED-ing the way to efficiency

Of course, many of these advanced capabilities could just as easily be enabled by placing a sensor on a standard HPS fixture. But they’re under discussion now because of the possibility of piggybacking such installations onto the massive LED upgrade programs now underway in the United States and around the globe. LEDs offer enormous energy savings, using less than half the electricity consumed by traditional fixtures.

Also, with lifespans estimated at 20 years or more, based on standard operation, they also require significantly less maintenance. A city could see payback in two to three years or less.


"With sensors, you can provide real-time data to your citizens, and you can get software developers to build smart-city apps that help cities solve some of their challenges." —Brandon Davito, Silver Spring Networks


“It can often be the single largest line item in their electricity bill,” Berst said. “So there’s millions of dollars at stake.”

Cities don’t always own their own streetlights. In fact, municipalities own only about half of all U.S. streetlights. Electric utilities own the other half, and they essentially sell the service of streetlighting back to the cities. 

While their electricity sales might plummet with an LED conversion effort, utilities can see the value in such projects, Davito said. For example, systems incorporating the kind of networking Silver Spring Networks offers can result in many fewer bucket trucks on the road.

“For a utility, streetlights are a big operational cost, and many utilities will manage hundreds of thousands of streetlights,” he said. “By using our system, they can reduce their cost substantially. The other piece is that utilities are increasingly looking at ways to become service providers.”

This means the ability for utilities to add value to their basic illumination offering can prove to be very attractive. For example, some utilities now are creating new rates for municipal customers where networked LED systems have been introduced. In the past, utilities would equip their HPS fixtures with a “dumb” photocell that only controlled the lamp to which it was attached and couldn’t be remotely monitored. They would charge the city a fixed rate based on how long the light was illuminated. Given the many states of operation LED technology allows, from dimming to turning completely off based on traffic and occupancy data, such simplistic rate structures no longer make sense.

What both cities and utilities are looking for first in these newly networked lighting systems is the ability to monitor fixture status, including energy consumption, voltage and any failures. When you are managing a network of 100,000 streetlights, flagging potential problems and addressing broken fixtures proactively can lead to happier residents and customers than simply waiting for someone to call a trouble hotline.

Next on the wish list is the ability to control individual lights in real time, which could be a boon for public-safety officials. Perhaps this would mean turning all fixtures in a city block to 100 percent brightness to aid in a search. Or, it also could mean turning all those fixtures off, giving police officers wearing night-vision goggles an advantage over criminals suddenly left in the dark.

Finally, there’s the ability of fixtures to respond—on their own and with each other—based on dynamic, real-time data received from their onboard sensors. In this case, one could imagine lights in a given area starting to flash in response to air-quality sensors that have detected smoke or leaking gas, with those closest to the event reacting more quickly.

“Because the devices can talk to each other, they can communicate with each other in real time,” Davito said.

In Copenhagen, Denmark, for example, streetlight-mounted video sensors track bike-lane activity to turn lights on as cyclists approach and then send a signal to traffic lights ahead to turn green, as appropriate, for more efficient bicycle transit. Of course, there are many decision layers to address in such a scenario, for example, what the opposing traffic is like at the intersection. This is why such roll-outs are rehearsed in small pilot projects before going mainstream.

“Getting that right is really challenging,” Davito said.

Ashe believes that the open market, rather than individual companies, is the best solution for addressing those challenges. He said that cities should open the data generated by streetlight-based sensors—whether those sensors are tracking air quality, traffic patterns, or simply offering a video feed of surrounding parking and bike lanes—to the creativity of app and other software developers.

“With sensors, you can provide real-time data to your citizens, and you can get software developers to build smart-city apps that help cities solve some of their challenges,” Davito said.

For example, this could include the location of the closest available parking space.

“That, ultimately, will be better than having one vendor who solves one particular use case,” he said.

Offering sensors that can collect multiple types of data in a single package is a goal for both cities and manufacturers. This is likely to become even more important as the powerful light-output capabilities of LEDs enable more compact and streamlined fixture designs. Such multifunctionality also enables a much broader range of users to potentially benefit from newly available data.

“The more multifunction the sensor is, the better,” Ashe said. “You give all the departments in a city a tool. That is the vision of a smart city, and the pole is the quickest way to scale that type of system in a smart city.”

Such sensors are only just beginning to hit the market, though. Ashe said GE will be introducing a multisensor node this year, which will be offered with cloud-based storage of the kind of collected data app developers will need.

Five years out

So, what this market look like five years from now? Berst hopes for greater interoperability of sensors and other equipment than is currently the case. Though common communication protocols often are promoted, they aren’t always followed as closely as he would like.

“Some vendors adhere to open standards, but they do it with their own flavor, so you could be trapped into one vendor’s infrastructure,” he said. “It can be pretty subtle. It’s something that requires real effort on the part of the buyer.”

Additionally, he is hoping the standards now under development for sensor data and network operations have firmed up over that period. His goal is for cities to “start sharing applications, so we’re not reinventing the wheel all the time.”

Those caveats aside, Berst is bullish on the opportunities this build-out offers for electrical contractors that familiarize themselves with the technologies and the needs of their local markets. After all, there are approximately 60 million of these fixtures in the United States today, so there should be plenty of this work for some years to come.

“I think this is a terrific growth area and it’s right in their wheelhouse,” he said. “The economics are so compelling. It’s hard to find a technology with a faster payback than LEDs, so I think it’s a terrific future opportunity.”

About the Author

Chuck Ross

Freelance Writer

Chuck Ross has covered building and energy technologies and electric-utility business issues for a range of industry publications and websites for more than 25 years. Contact him at chuck@chuck-ross.com.

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.