Reading Time: 7 minutes

June 9, 2016

A street light, light pole, lamppost, street lamp, light standard, or lamp standard is a raised source of light on the edge of a road or walkway.  Modern lamps may also have light-sensitive photocells that activate automatically when light is or is not needed: dusk, dawn, or the onset of dark weather.  This function in older lighting systems could have been performed with the aid of a solar dial.  Many street light systems are being connected underground instead of wiring from one utility post to another.

So, this is how classic street lights have been defined for at least the past 50 years, perhaps much longer.

Now, whenever I meet with a new city wanting to discuss IBM’s Smarter Cities solutions, I raise the application of “smart” street lighting.  The reaction is consistent that most city managers do not find this topic very exciting or leading edge.  They see it as kind of boring and old school.  Yet, this is one of the easiest projects to achieve a quick and meaningful return on investment.

The next reaction is inevitably a discussion of simply changing out the old incandescence, sodium, metal halide, and mercury vapour lamps for modern CFL (Compact Fluorescent Light) bulbs or LED (Light-Emitting Diode) lights.  But, there is so much more to this smarter street light discussion than just changing out the lamp.

Smarter street lights are the lighting systems used to illuminate public spaces, normally street lighting, and they perform this function well.  By proving proper street lights, cities can improve safety for citizens, reduce car accidents, and add to the overall livability of the city.

Historically, street lights have been a static source of illumination.  During the dark hours, the lights never actually shut off, they burned brightly all night long.  So, there is always an abundance of bright light.  Light can be a form of light pollution too.  If someone is trying to sleep and a street light is beaming into the bedroom, it is a problem.  Lights can overwhelm the ocular nerves and cause temporary blindness or lingering bright spots in the eyes.


The image above is a depiction of what a smarter street light might be defined as today.  It becomes a node in a network fabric and can facilitate a myriad of capabilities.  It can be a Wi-Fi hotspot for citizens to use, a city gateway to access transit schedules on their personal devices, an environmental sensor for weather and air pollution measures, and it can be a security and surveillance point.  Oh yes, do not forget, it can also be a street light.

Most importantly, the smarter street lights can offer many additional capabilities, for example it can be a relay point for a much larger mesh network used for many other smarter city applications.  They act as a take-out point for an Internet of Things (IoT) network that connects:

  • Smart meters used for electricity, water, gas, waster water, storm sewers;
  • They can connect smart traffic solutions, for control of stop lights and roadway lane control systems;
  • Smart transit can use these nodes to update passengers upon the arrival of a bus, or to share route and schedule details;
  • Smart parking can use these street light nodes to communicate the availability of open parking spots in parking lots and on the streets using parking meters;
  • Smart buildings can communicate to the surrounding streets to extend their reach to the sidewalks;
  • Wearable technology worn by people can summon help from smart healthcare, which can alert first responders if a person is experiencing a medical episode and needs immediate emergency assistance;
  • They can use these smart nodes to track lost dogs or find moved garbage bins so they can be located;
  • Citizens can use these nodes to report city related issues, such as accidents, bylaw concerns, damaged trees, road surface problems, security issues, and more.

These smart nodes can be the fundamental backbone infrastructure for a complete smarter city network.  Therefore, they are absolutely critical to every smarter city strategy.

The intelligent street lights have motion detection and video cameras connected to them that provide alerts to control the light, so they know when someone is approaching, whether it is a pedestrian, a bicyclists, or a car.  When someone is coming near, they dial up the level of illumination to 100% to provide appropriate lighting.  The lights communicate to each other too, so they can alert other lights downstream in the direction that a pedestrian is travelling to activate subsequent street lights from a dimmed condition to a full brightness condition in sequence.  The person is always wrapped in a safe circle of light.

Motion detection alone can be fooled by trees blowing in the wind, trash blowing around, and cats and dogs wondering the streets.  So, video cameras augment these alarms utilizing smart algorithms that generate meaningful metadata.  This metadata is far more effective at identifying the person, cyclist, or car, and at ignoring false-positives alerts from the motion detectors only.  Often, when using cameras, we integrate multiple other sources to augment the detection, such as solar sensors, motion detectors, magnetic underground vehicle detectors, centralized controllers, gate card readers, RFID tags, smart cars communicating to the lighting system, traffic patterns and trends analysis, and much more.


The financial savings from a complete smarter street lighting solution can save cities in many ways.  Of course, the obvious savings from the change-out of the old lamps to the new LEDs can save 25% to 30% in electricity costs.  By dimming the lights, additional savings can be realized, perhaps another 10% to 15%.  LEDs last much longer when they are dynamically dimmed, so the life cycle costs for replacement and maintenance of the lights are greatly reduced too.  Traffic disruption for maintenance is reduced as well.  This makes the public happy.  The number of crews, bucket trucks, and support resources to maintain the street lights is also much lower.  In total, the savings can be 50% to 60% less compared to what is paid for older lamps like mercury vapour lights.

The benefits of this type of technology can be:

  • Energy savings: energy use and costs decline, because the lights dim at night when there is low activity
  • Maintenance cost reduction: maintenance costs are reduced because it takes more time before the lamps have to be replaced
  • Reduction in CO₂ emissions: with this energy reduction results in a reduction in CO₂ emissions.
  • Reduction of light pollution: light pollution is reduced, because the street lights don’t shine at full brightness anymore. Street scenes become calmer looking.
  • Maintenance of safety: safety is maintained, because the lights are dimmed, not turned off completely. One might even argue safety improves because it becomes clear from far away when movement is approaching (the lights brighten).

Smarter Street Light Project Examples

In Paris, they are deploying a citywide canopy network connecting cabinet-based controllers for more than 200,000 street and traffic lights across the city.  The City of Paris replaced 80,000 light fixtures with an Echelon-based multi-vendor, open system.  In addition to saving 35% in both energy and capital expenses, Paris is using its citywide lighting network as the basis for developing Smart City applications.

In Sénart en Essonne, a four-city area 35 km south of Paris, an Echelon-based outdoor lighting system has helped reduce the area’s operating budget and maintenance costs while increasing road safety.

GE’s customized LED street lights with wireless lighting controls will provide energy-efficient illumination of San Diego’s Downtown District.  The city, which is expected to save more than $250,000 annually, is the first in the United States to utilize LightGrid™ technology.

In Chicago, the local electricity distribution company is extending its smart meter network to install 800 smart street lights in small region of the Chicago area.  ComEd expects 65 percent cost reduction for operations, maintenance and energy for the street lights.

Norway’s capital, Oslo, was one of the first cities to deploy a large-scale intelligent, open standards-based outdoor lighting network built on Echelon technology.  Data from traffic and weather sensors and an internal astronomical clock are used to automatically dim some street lights, thus reducing energy use by 62%, extending lamp life, and lowering replacement costs.

Quebec City saved 30% in energy use, reduced maintenance and inventory costs, increased public safety, and beautified the city’s historical district with their smart street light solution.

After installing electronic dimmable ballasts and enhanced fixtures controlled by Echelon technology, the densely populated Chinese cities of Dongguan and Shenzhen saved an average of 52% in energy costs; identified cable theft; and reduced the number of maintenance people.

I will end the list of examples with Hamilton, the city nearby where I grew up as a child in the Niagara Peninsula here in Canada.  In 2015, Hamilton underwent a citywide conversion to LED street lighting with annual energy savings of $700,000.  There is more to be done and more savings to be had if they add the intelligence to these lights.

There are many more examples of successful smarter street light projects.  So, they are not so boring after all, since they can return real savings to the city and provide recognizable value to the citizens.

In fact, it is said that there are about 300 million street lights operating around the globe.  Less than 1% of all street lights are currently connected, but connected street lights are expected to grow at a rate of 16% per year.  On average the public lighting systems are more than 20 years old, so they are ready for upgrades and enhancements.  Lighting can represent for up to 40% of a city’s total energy consumption.  Therefore, anything that can be done to cut costs for street lights is simply smart business.


You will find many articles posted on my LinkedIn Pulse page, so click on the link below to view and read my articles.  Thanks for taking the time to read this post – comments, shares, and likes are always welcome and I will respond to questions pertaining to this article.  LinkedIN


About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies. He is a Senior Executive, Internet of Things Lead with IBM Canada’s GTS Network Services Group. Over the past 11 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN:TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO:TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX:TSX.V).  He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of four different Colleges in Ontario as well as for 16 years on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.  He holds three Masters level degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.



Let there be light! And let it be smart