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Public Works: Can “Intelligent” Streetlights Cut Our Energy Use in Half?

New energy-conserving Italian streetlights observe and react to their surroundings.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Each night, in cities around the word, millions of streetlights on millions of roads burn at full power, sapping countless kilowatt hours of electricity, often just to brighten empty streets. As necessary as it is for pedestrian and traffic safety, the lighting of public spaces can be a pretty wasteful venture. But a recent innovation out of Italy seems poised to revolutionize public lighting and municipal energy consumption through innovative “smart” technology.

SmartEye is being touted as an intelligent lighting system, capable of assessing its environment and controlling lighting levels accordingly. While other lighting systems have used timers or motion sensors to limit energy expenditure on streetlights, SmartEye goes further, using a camera and data processor to observe and react to natural light, weather conditions, and even the type, speed, and direction of traffic. The idea is to use only the exact amount of energy that is needed to sufficiently light public space.

SmartEye’s producers, a company called Smart-I, estimate that by implementing their product, a city can reduce the energy consumption of its public lighting by 49 per cent. With that lofty promise, SmartEye has already won the support of Big Energy. Enel, a major European energy provider partially run by the Italian government, struck a deal in 2013 that will see it gain a 30 per cent share of Smart-I in exchange for 650,000 euros. SmartEye has since been rolled out in select areas of certain Italian cities, and is already showing 15 per cent reductions in streetlight energy use.

If all goes well with the Italian pilot projects, SmartEye may be a perfect fit for Toronto. The City has already expressed interest in “smart energy” systems and has committed to “conserving, reducing, and smartly distributing” electricity and natural gas power. SmartEye could be the way to do it. At least until it develops sentience and tries to annihilate the humans—which, as the movies have shown us, all intelligent machines inevitably do.

Or, of course, SmartEye might be declared a tool of state oppression.

Smart-I’s founders have suggested their lighting system could also be used for security. Its camera can already register and assess safety risks, making it an ideal way for municipalities to keep a watchful eye on dark corners of a city. Privacy advocates have already attacked far less sophisticated camera-directed lighting systems for infringing on privacy rights, and if the backlash against red-light cameras is any indication, SmartEye may have a hard job winning over civil libertarians if it starts being used for policing.

Still, SmartEye’s energy-saving potential is enticing, especially here in a city that, for six months out of the year, gets less than 12 hours of natural light a day.


  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    Why do governments keep thinking CCTV cameras help with crime? A decade of use in Britain shows they don’t.

    • vampchick21

      It’s not to cut down on crime, its for footage of Britain’s favourite reality tv show!

      • Sean_Marshall

        A rare late-era Simpsons reference.

        • vampchick21

          And a particular fave episode of mine. :)

    • eternaloptimist1971

      What facts are you using to support that claim? CCTV nailed the two Islamic radicals that publicly beheaded that soldier last year, they were instrumental in catching just about everyone involved in the King’s Cross bombing, and that’s just using a couple of examples.
      Why do you believe otherwise? I’m just curious more than anything.

    • tomwest

      Prevention is not the same as providing evidence in court.

      • tyrannosaurus_rek

        If you can prove the person on the screen is the person charged, which isn’t so easily done. In 2008 a shooting (five injured, one killed) at a Lawrence Heights apartment building was caught on two different cameras, but no eye-witnesses came forward to identify the shooter and Owen Anthony Smith walked free, charges dropped.

  • Sean_Marshall

    Hmm. I’m not sold.
    In the meantime, Toronto Hydro is still dragging its feet on lighting – the various ALAMP evaluations are still ongoing – several years after it was supposed to end. While Mississauga’s been busy replacing cobraheads with modern energy-saving LED lamps, only one block of Delaware Avenue and part of the CNE grounds are equipped. Sure, the LEDs mess with the classic Toronto acorn/bracket streetlamp, but Toronto Hydro could start with all the orange-burning cobraheads.

  • wklis

    Would they react to children movements? If so, then raccoons could as well. Oh, deer, what about the wind rustling the leaves?

    • dsmithhfx


  • HotDang

    We have such long days in the summer that you hardly need street lights. This product is more well-suited to the tropics, where the nights are longer in the summer.

    • OgtheDim

      Doesn’t Italy have the same day light hours as us?

      • tyrannosaurus_rek

        Yep; Toronto and Florence (in northern Italy) are within spitting distance of the 43rd parallel.

      • HotDang

        Yes, but it is much foggier in Italy due to it’s maritime climate.

    • tomwest

      Toronto doesn’t have long summer nights.

    • Geoff

      Toronto’s nights are shorter during the summer, but they are longer during the winter. The average length of night is the same everywhere. We won’t be saving as much during the summer, but we will save more during the winter.

      • HotDang

        That shouldn’t be a problem either. The light of the moon on the new fallen snow gives the luster of midday to objects below.

  • OgtheDim

    I think some light poles are set to go off when we get near. Was struggling over an ice hill the other day and suddenly it got very atmospheric.

  • tomwest

    Here’s a much cheaper option: ensure the reflectors driect all the light *down*, towards the street. If you anyway up high, you’ll see the streetlights… indicating they are shining light up to the sky.
    If all the light went down, you’d need lower brighness lights.

  • rich1299

    The invasion of privacy worries me the most, its bad enough to have our gov’t monitoring our communications but now to become like Britain where these cameras are everywhere would be far too much. There are other less invasive ways to reduce hydro consumption for streetlights like LEDs. There will always be a need to see a fair distance in front of you when driving. Even just motion detectors would be creepy for pedestrians since it’d draw extra attention to them as they walk down a street. As someone else pointed out the reflector design could be changed to get more light where its supposed to be, besides saving energy it’d also allow us, if enough street lights were changed over, to see our night sky again or at least more of it.

  • David Church

    How is it an invasion of privacy to have sensors which monitor current weather conditions, ambient light levels and traffic flow? The sensors do not monitor and track individuals.

    “There will always be a need to see a fair distance in front of you when driving.” That’s why all motor vehicles now come with headlights.