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LED street lights: Taking a step toward smarter cities

Throughout much of the lighting industry’s history, lights have been primarily a single function tool – they turn on and they turn off. Maybe a few dim and maybe a few are set to timers, but for the most part, there is no intelligence driving the majority of lighting actions.

For instance, street lights may switch on at dusk and switch off at dawn, but typically they do not change their light output based on how many cars are on the road or how much ambient light is available. This also applies to canopy lighting, parking garage lighting, and much more. With almost 20 percent of the world’s energy consumption* coming from lighting, imagine how much energy could be saved through a little feedback from the environment.

Municipal governments seem to be paying attention to intelligent lighting systems. As budgets have become increasingly restrictive over the years, energy consumption in cities has become a focal point for many local governments. Many have turned their attention to street lighting as an obvious way to free up budgeting resources, while maintaining or even improving safety. Not surprisingly, many cities have taken the jump to LED street lighting since seeing the positive long-term cost analysis with the potential to reduce power consumption and maintenance costs.

If you are familiar with government organizations, they are generally not the first ones to embrace newer technologies. Yet, many municipalities are in fact taking this first step and installing LED street lights (after much research and field studies). While these are impactful steps in the right direction, there is still room for further growth. Many of the LED street lights on the market are primarily fixed-function LED units, with little in the way of intelligence or connectivity. Over time, the hope is to see more and more intelligence and connectivity being brought into the light in order to further reduce energy consumption, excess light pollution, and consequently, cost.

What is it going to take to start seeing these smart lighting solutions of the future to go along with the smart cities we all dream about?

The simple answer is to reduce the unit cost. While intelligent outdoor LED lighting solutions can prove long-term cost savings through reduced operating costs, both in energy consumption and maintenance, this is often not enough for financially strapped cities having to consider taking out bonds or other financial measures to front the initial costs of an LED lighting installation.

There is a breaking point where cities decide that the extra upfront costs (and longer payoff calendar) are not worth the extra investment. This could be the decision point between an LED installation and a non-LED installation, or even between a smart-LED installation and a fixed-function LED installation. It is similar to the cost considerations for consumers looking to replace their incandescent or fluorescent bulbs in their home with LED bulbs. While many know they may be able to save money over the long term, they are not yet comfortable fronting several hundred dollars or more to replace many of the common bulbs they use every day.

Yet, as technology and improved manufacturing bring down prices of LED lighting, the return on investment of intelligent and networked lighting solutions should become a no-brainer. In fact, many municipalities today have already taken advantage of such solutions with adequate financing.

When one factors in the not-so-apparent cost benefits of intelligence and networking in lighting technology, the benefits present a strong case for the investment. For instance, intelligent dimming can provide up to a percentage in energy savings for each percentage of dimming. Beyond the obvious and substantial energy savings of dimming, less apparent cost reductions can be seen in areas like maintenance costs, as crews no longer need to manually monitor installed lighting units.

Likewise, utility charges can be reduced as metering solutions enable accurate measurement of energy consumption data, eliminating common fixed rate fees per street light. Further, longevity of the lights themselves can be maximized with intelligent solutions. With the ability to adjust light output for LED aging, color shifting and even failure, the usable lifetime of an LED-based installation can be improved.

In all, there are almost innumerable benefits which come with networking and intelligence. A challenge for the lighting industry will be to make this proof self-apparent and easy for a customer base that demands of strong proof before investment.