Smart lighting short circuits government’s rising power bill

Red Light Bulb
Ratepayers and councils are seeing red over rising power bills.



A big technological leap forward in how outdoor lighting systems are controlled is set to slash local government electricity costs, shrink energy consumption and give councils an in-depth picture of how people access streets, roads and other public spaces.

That’s the illuminating take-away from the second annual Australian Smart Lighting Summit held in Melbourne last week, where public sector infrastructure managers and industry knuckled down to shed light on efficiency measures that stand to save rate payers tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Changing light bulbs may not seem like big business, but they’re a real and pressing financial concern given that outdoor lighting now accounts for more than half the energy used by Australian councils (56 per cent), whether it’s suburban streets, public plazas or major roads.

A big chunk of that electricity bill has been generated by the fact that until recently, street lighting has essentially been stuck in the pre-digital, often manually controlled, dark ages as consumer and commercial innovations like motion sensors become common.

But as cost pressures increase, the public sector is actively scoping what outdoor lighting of the future could look like, with plenty of councils sitting-up and taking notice at the landmark conference.

Robert Evans from Organic Response, a firm that installs indoor lighting for healthcare and educational facilities, sat on a conference panel that canvassed new lighting control technologies which could potentially deliver major benefits to local government.

“We make a sensor that goes into an (indoor) light fitting when it’s manufactured and that sensor has all the intelligence in place to look at its environment with a motion and a daylight sensor but it’s got an infrared connection between the light fittings that allows them to share information and control all of the lights in the space based on single occupancy,” Mr Evans said.

The breakthrough that the nifty gadget offers is that as a person moves through a space, the lights behind them gradually dim — and those ahead of them quickly brighten.

The man with the bright ideas also reckons there are lessons that outdoor lighting managers can apply from indoor lighting.

“At the moment you can only really get daylight responses from sensors. What you really want is to give that light the intelligence to better understand its environment and then change its light levels based on that,” Mr Evans said.

One of the biggest changes for lighting control in a built environment is developing systems that can operate across a wireless network.

The big saving on offer from wireless option is that it spares the cost of digging-up and re-laying surfaces to trench in cables between lights in the public spaces.

Another challenge for those managing outdoor lighting is that while most  indoor environments are inherently predictable — for example in their temperature and layout — that’s clearly not the case for outdoor built environments.

Although the energy and cost savings of new lighting systems are undeniably compelling, they’re by no means the only tangible benefit councils can realise, with smart systems also able to generate valuable data.

For example, a new ability for street light sensors to relay real-time information to a central control point means that decisions can automatically be based data feeds, including information on traffic flows and the ability to control traffic lights.

Data on motorists’ driving habits could also be used to more accurately predict and target road maintenance and road expansion projects.

“It’s about how people are using and moving through spaces,” Mr Evans said.

“The light fitting becomes your vehicle for deploying sensors that can help you understand how people are using the space, for example traffic lights…when you allow pedestrians to flow across a particular intersection can be centrally controlled by the linking your lighting system.”

The future has already arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, where a pilot project was announced last year to install 400 smart street lights that could detect noise and movement and help combat street fighting and other loud disturbances.

The lighting system can be connected to an operations centre so that CCTV operators can zoom in on the fracas. The lights can also be programmed to flash and direct emergency crews to the scene, as well as to detect pollution.

Several local authorities in the UK have already replaced their existing street lights with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and some have combined this with being able to centrally manage individual lights, including being able to dim them.

But Mr Evans warned Australia was lagging behind on embracing outdoor lighting control technology. Of the 20 lighting suppliers at last week’s summit, none could supply the type of outdoor lighting with motion sensors that the panel was discussing.

“I think the market is really interested in smart lighting control, whether indoor or outdoor, but there’s a real gap in terms of what suppliers are providing. Europe is far more advanced than Australia,” he said.

The conference was not only about smart outdoor lighting. It also looked at the City of Melbourne’s public lighting strategy and how lighting was used to create inviting, safe public spaces at night to bring more people in the city at night and the City of Sydney’s LED retrofit project.

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