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




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.