Street lighting – illuminating smart cities and society


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.

Street lighting projects globally:

One of the most rapidly evolving regions is Oceania, where Australia and New Zealand are investing up to $780 million in streetlights over a ten-year period. Over 95% of streetlights in Oceania will have been converted to LEDs, while 70% will be networked by 2027.

According to Ben Gardner, president of Northeast Group: “The New Zealand government is now funding 85% of the cost of streetlight projects and Australian states have come up with new financing mechanisms and lighting codes that are encouraging deployments. New Zealand already has over 25% of its streetlights networked.”

Australia’s move to develop smart grid infrastructure has been a key driver. The majority of the streetlights are primarily owned by utilities, but as smart city plans increase, smart street lighting will provide a critical foundational layer.

In the US, according to a new study conducted by Northeast Group, over the next decade, almost 90% of US streetlights will be converted to LEDs, while 38% will be networked.

The vast majority of the country’s 306 largest cities have now either begun or are considering deploying both LED and smart or connected, streetlights.

ComEd in Illinois has announced that they will upgrade 140,000 street lights to smart units and Tampa Electric in Florida recently followed suit.  

It is estimated that the ComEd initiative could save Chicago in the region of $10 million annually.

Tampa Electric will install 260 000 Itron smart photocells by 2024.

In New York, the city’s power authority recently allocated $7.5 million dollars in smart streetlighting funding. The City of Syracuse will be the first large municipality in New York to test new streetlight technologies, and the pilot project planned installation of equipment that can expand Wi-Fi, 4G and 5G internet connection capabilities on its streetlights, and install other digital enhancements to city-wide services.

Eurelectric has reported that European cities are aiming to have 10 million smart street lights installed by 2025.

In France, Enedis, the local DSO is piloting the use of street lighting infrastructure and electric vehicle charging.  According to Domonique Lagarde, Director of the Electric Mobility Programme for the utility: “We have recently completed a pilot in which we utilised the public lighting grid as charging points and found the right solution to make this work from both a technical and contractual perspective in order to effectively deliver charging infrastructure without having to develop new grids specifically for charging. We are now wanting to roll this out to a larger area.”

The road to the future is lit by smart street lighting – the backbone to technologies that will see cities shaped by new efficiencies, cleaner more sustainable cities, and climate change goals met.