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A Bright Day for Street Lighting

As cities and roads get smarter, this once-humble infrastructure element takes on new roles.
Street light graphic

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The common streetlight is in transition. Once a utilitarian infrastructure component with one purpose, it’s becoming an essential element of the smart cityscape – able to collect the data needed for traffic management and public safety, improve Wi-Fi service, harvest solar energy, charge devices and electric vehicles, and manage efficiency controls for roadways.

But if the light pole appears to be having its day, it’s also obvious that until recently, it lagged behind adjacent technology. For example, LED lighting used to be cutting edge, but it’s now standard for new streetlight installations. When massive upgrades to older systems – common in major cities –replace high-pressure sodium light fixtures, it’s no longer simply about lighting. LEDs, along with Wi-Fi, 4G, and 5G mesh networks delivering data and cellular service in the residential and commercial markets are now conventional features combined into the improvements.

But as LEDs and high-speed cellular networks penetrate the market, the question remains: What is next for streetlights? Are they keeping pace with advancements in the ongoing effort to plan, develop, and operate smart subdivisions, smart roads, and even entire smart cities?

Indeed, streetlighting is in the process of being revolutionized, so it helps save energy and improves everyone’s quality of life. Data sensing, Wi-Fi and cellular service, solar harvesting, device and electric vehicle charging, and efficiency controls for roadways are all within the purview of the modern streetlight. Their days of solely illuminating dark streets are coming to an end.

Image of street light
Vista Parkway Improvements | North Palm Beach, FL

Not surprisingly, repurposing pole lighting for the new era of street and outdoor-area use requires an array of engineering services: Photometric analysis for fixture selections and locations, electrical distribution design to support the installation, electrical load analysis, circuit and overcurrent protection design, calculations for voltage drop and energy code compliance, and low voltage coordination. Clients include state transportation departments, which need design and construction documents, and private developers seeking consultation services, peer review, and coordination for residential and commercial projects.

As anonymous as they once were — and that’s changing with examples like multifaceted pole system Superbloom, Project Room’s winning entry in the LA Lights the Way competition — light poles have a built-in benefit when creating smart systems today and in the future. They tower anywhere from 20 feet to 40 feet over sidewalks, streets, and interstates, giving them the perfect vantage point for currently implemented uses — and those planned for them.

One opportunity is to equip poles with sensing technology that collects data as part of the larger effort to build and operate safer, more-efficient road systems that keep motorists moving. By capturing an abundance of real-time data across the entirety of a city, light poles are crucial to the management of parking, routing traffic, wayfinding, and tracking weather. Data can be integrated with a mobile app to steer motorists clear of localized congestion, ease long-distance daily commutes, enhance the planning of large events, help drivers navigate natural and man-made disasters, and activate light signals to clear the way for first responders.

Palm Beach Ramp
PGA Ramp Improvements | Palm Beach County, FL

As part of an integrated centralized system, light poles are ideal collection points for resilient, reliable data clouds that the public can trust. Using them for these applications is practical, and since they are already necessary parts of the landscape — dating back to the era of gas lamps — light poles are not intrusive. And using the Superbloom system by Project Room as a reference point, modern light pole designs, equipped with canopies and other aesthetic features, can be both practical and stylish.

As the push for electric vehicles continues to gain momentum, many large companies have announced transformative commitments to electrification – and with $7.5 billion for charging infrastructure included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) – light poles could play a central role in urban cores, where federal matching grants are expected to help build out the charging backbone.

With charging systems installed, particularly in cities, light poles are already being used to charge cars, phones, and an assortment of personal devices. In pedestrian areas, this is a game-changer. In California, following the lead of major European cities, Los Angeles attached EV charging stations to more than 130 light poles. The stations are managed by charging network companies. These are ideal for those who live in apartments and for those who otherwise do not have the resources to install their own residential charging systems.

Light poles are also ideal for energy capture. The energy harnessed by the pole-and-solar panel configuration – or by a pole that is itself a solar panel – can be used to supplement the power grid in a particular area, and then used for device charging. A 400-watt cell, for example, can be placed on a light pole for local energy consumption. While solar harvesting might not be ideal in a roadway setting, it is optimal within a smart city initiative where light poles line block after block.

Highway at night

As the light pole becomes a multipurpose feature of smart roads and smart cities, it’s important to note that the streetlight’s most basic function could change, or at least improve. As it stands, street lighting is straightforward — at night the lights turn on, and in the morning they turn off. But with an Intelligent Traffic System (ITS), there could be better articulation of lighting. It could be controlled at the street and highway levels with traffic detection that could read traffic patterns, dimming lights, or in some instances, turning them off. This would provide a robust and reliable control system that’s more efficient for the freeway and arterial roadways. If there’s no reason to run millions of watts of energy at night, then why do so?

While WGI does not manufacture new-generation light poles or the adjacent technology, we provide the services that are needed to install such systems in urban areas, commercial and residential subdivisions, and along roadways — with decades of experience in both the public and private sectors.

Our professionals can create the specification plan, coordinate with manufacturers, evaluate data requirements, assess power needs, lay out the design of the installation, coordinate construction, conduct photometric analyses and load calculations, manage utility coordination, and the installation of the infrastructure. Whether it be in the city center, a suburban setting, or along the interstate, WGI is positioned to perform in the evolving market of intelligent outdoor lighting. Contact our experts today.

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