There are at least 60m streetlights in Europe. This, of course, is a good thing: they make roads safer and far more pleasant to walk along, and do much to minimise the chance of something horrible happening to passers-by.
But most of those street lights – as many as three-quarters – are at least 25 years old. And until relatively recently, lighting technology wasn't very efficient. As a result, the need to light up the streets can cost local government anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent of its energy bills.
Lucky for councils, then, that the EU is on hand to ride to the rescue. Even at this very moment, the European Commission’s “European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities & Communities” (or EIP-SCC, if you prefer something snappier) is working to replace 10m streetlights across Europe with new, low-energy models.
That means more LED bulbs, which can cut energy costs by 50 to 75 per cent, mounted on lightweight poles, made from fibreglass or wood. Emissions-wise, replacing 10m streetlight bulbs with LEDs is equivalent to removing 2.6m cars from the road.
There’s more. The lights could also be raised or dimmed centrally – if an incident was playing out over CCTV and security needed a better view, for example. Some of the streetlights also have “smart” features, such as air quality monitors and Wi-Fi hubs: after all, since these things are inevitably going to be all over the place, we might as well use them.
Of course, replacing millions of streetlights is a pretty expensive business – so the initiative will be based on what Graham Colclough, the partner at consultancy UrbanDNA, who’s leading the project, calls “open component-based design”. That basically boils down to encouraging manufacturers to produce different parts which could combine to make street lights smarter, without the need to fully replace millions throughout Europe.
Late last year, representatives from different European countries met to discuss how to put the plan, which was launched early in 2014, into action. “ Ministers get it, leaders and mayors get it,” Colclough says. “Lots of smart city ideas are quite abstract, but street furniture is something you see and use every day, so the benefits are much clearer and more immediate.”
And, he says, the challenge has also been taken up by designers and manufacturers: “Nine months ago, if you searched Google for images of streetlights, you just found pictures of bog-standard models. Now, the results page is full of new, funky designs.”
Without finalised designs, it’s impossible to say how long it’d take for energy savings to pay back smart streetlight investment. Estimates from the Green Investment bank, however, show that the switch from standard to low-energy lighting generally pays for itself within five to 15 years.
Maintaining the lights would be cheaper, too: LED bulbs offer around 100,000 hours of light, as opposed to the 15,000 hours supplied by a standard bulb. And because LED streetlights use collections of bulbs rather than just one, the street wouldn’t be plunged into darkness when one went pop.
These “smart” streetlights would be more appropriate for some roads than others, of course: Oxford Street has greater need for Wi-Fi and air quality sensors than residential areas would. For village roads and country lanes, meanwhile, we’re still rooting for those bioluminescent tree streetlights.