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Does Smart Street Lighting Make Cities More Climate Resilient?


Light pollution clouding the sky near the horizon in Moab, Utah. Photo credit: Benjamin Velani.


When I first started digging into this topic, I was a little shocked at how much information was already out there. It makes sense, however, because as societies shift away from fossil fuel for energy production, the companies that own those supply chains need to adapt to renewables or risk having no future. Whichever Big Oil company can transition to dominating the renewable energy space best and fastest has a much better chance at surviving than if it doesn’t react at all.


Large energy companies, like Clarion Energy, Endesa, and Red Eléctrica de España, not only connect the extractors to the refiners to the distributors, but they also own media and event organizing firms, like Smart Energy International, ESI Africa, Power Engineering International, Renewable Energy World, and others, that promote the research they fund to study various methods of sustainable electric infrastructure.


Exposed to the right people, this kind of media can lead to major commissions by cities hungry to reduce their carbon footprint and lower energy costs. The New York Power Authority has already begun The Smart City Technology Grant Program, which entails renovating cities’ street lighting infrastructure. NYPA, on the same site, highlights Section 70-a of New York State law, approved on October 13, 2016, which “provides clear guidelines for municipalities to begin the process of purchasing their streetlights from the electric utility that owns them.” Natural monopolies on energy production have allowed established energy companies to adapt and serve a market that is increasingly demanding climate change resilient infrastructure, like wind, solar, and geothermal.


In this case, it’s fortunate that public and private interest align, as the desire to stay in the business of energy mandates switching to renewable sources and making cities as energy efficient, renewable, and resilient to climate change as possible. Making street lighting as energy efficient as possible is a part of this mandate. Right now, this work is most successfully being accomplished by established manufacturers, like Signify, formerly known as Philips Lighting, and all of its subsidiaries.


By integrating various kinds of photo- or motion-reactive sensors and relay systems into lighting poles, companies like Signify have transformed this once static fixture into a reactive, service providing node connected to the Internet of Things (IoT). That said, such ‘smart’ technologies may provide as many benefits as they pose threats to denizens’ data privacy and threats of surveillance. I will explore these possible risks after first explaining how this technology works.


Briefly, the IoT is “a blanket term for all devices and network infrastructure that are connected to the Internet.” This kind of smart infrastructure, if working in combination with artificial intelligence (AI) software to automate the regulation of street lighting, can help a city cut its energy consumption by an estimated 50 percent. Such results were seen in trial runs of smart street lighting by Signify in Sheffield, Edinburgh, and Doncaster, United Kingdom. Smart street lighting has also been tested in Pune, India to great reported success.


There are two main ways that cities like these can regulate smart street lighting systems. The first, more conventional way, is through a centralized system, in which data from all the city’s streetlight sensors is channeled to one hub, and decisions for how to optimize energy efficiency are made by humans aided by AI analysis. There are different methods for optimizing a centralized system, but all include dimming or turning off streetlights during scheduled periods of the night.


The second way is through adaptive lighting schemes, such as that which has been proposed by Signify, wherein the streetlights autonomously react to perceived objects moving beneath them. Depending on the type of object detected (e.g., pedestrian vs. car), surrounding streetlights will, in a chain reaction, turn on or brighten to illuminate the required space adequately, but most importantly only temporarily. Such autonomous features also leave open the potential for streetlights to be able to detect gunshots, car crashes, or open parking spaces to speed up first responder reaction time and provide new conveniences for navigating rapidly congesting cities.


It is lucky for the creatures of the natural world, the nighttime pollinators, migrating birds, roadside plants and critters, and nearly everything else, that such adaptive lighting systems would also benefit them tremendously. Smart street lighting systems pose the potential for light pollution to be reduced tremendously, which, if optimized to a local ecology’s nocturnal activity schedule (i.e., which species are active at what period of the night, and how can the streetlights be program to minimize light pollution’s impact on such species), could dramatically improve the health of us and our lived landscapes.


But, as the literature on smart street lighting makes clear, cutting costs and reducing the carbon footprint of human infrastructure is priority number one. That said, there are also proposed strategies that leverage the widespread implementation of smart streetlights in the hopes of turning a utility into a source of profit for municipalities. If equipped to provide public information and communication technology (ICT) services, like Wi-Fi and 5G, and collect Big Data from its users, smart streetlights may become one of the most important and profitable services a city could provide.


This, however, is also where denizens are most threatened by smart street lighting technology. Data-collecting technology that’s heavily integrated into the infrastructure of a city raises concerns about one’s ability to opt-out of the system. Evgeny Klochikhin, writing for medium.com, frames it as a dilemma between privacy and convenience. Klochikhin argues that as a system becomes more ubiquitous, the less choice people will have in how they interact with it. If streetlights automatically collect data from your phone as you use their ICT services or even just pass by them, what say do you really have over how your data is being used?


Ben Green, in an article published by The New York Times, argues that data collected from the IoT in Smart Cities “will play a significant role in defining the social contract of the future.” Therefore, Green argues that data collection in this way must be regulated by the cities themselves, as the cities have the market making power to force the manufacturers of smart city infrastructure technologies to agree to regulation. Such regulations would need to prevent invasive, illegal surveillance, corporate monopolies, and the misuse of data to discriminate in an arbitrarily scored society or impose unjust social controls.


All that said, the biggest threat may be that from cyberattacks on smart streetlights, which could cause not only immediate harm to people driving or walking in unlit spaces, but broadly disrupt a smart city’s service systems – those that provide electricity, water, gas, and other essential services. Todd Thibodeaux, for the Harvard Business Review, suggests that smart cities and their infrastructure must have robust cyber-security, as well as manual overrides and fail-saves in the case of any severe disruptions.


To conclude, smart street lighting is a developing technology that hopes to cut the energy consumption of cities increasingly connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) – so called ‘smart’ cities. The integration of critical infrastructure with information and communication technologies (ICT), remote sensing, and artificial intelligence (AI) software promises to improve the efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint of rapidly growing cities. Further, by being reactive to their environment, adaptive smart streetlights have the potential to dramatically reduce light pollution’s heavy impact on the health of humans and all the plants and creatures we live alongside. However, such ubiquitous, data-collecting systems also pose many threats to smart city inhabitants, who would be more prone to data exploitation and inconveniences or harms caused by cyberattacks on critical infrastructures connected to the IoT.


The verdict is still out on whether the pros of smart street lighting outweigh the cons, and much discussion between the manufacturers of these technologies, the city officials that would oversee their implementation, and the public still needs to be had before a conclusion is reached and decisions are made.

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