In the beginning, there was LED. Not lights in the traditional sense, but electronic circuit boards that last a lot longer than existing illumination sources and use 50% to 70% less energy.

Ever on the lookout for wise taxpayer investments, municipalities began migrating to the new technology, making in this instance government more innovative than the private sector. The first LED streetlights were installed in 2008, so by now lighting managers are convinced the technology delivers as promised in cold as well as warm climates.

Then vendors took the next logical step.

An LED light is basically a computer, which means you can tell it what to do. Programming certain fixtures to go on or off at certain times trims another 10% to 15% off a city’s electricity bill.

That’s kind of cumbersome, though. So add a GPS chip to each fixture to show where the streetlight is. Then add a radio transmitter to send data about that fixture back to a central computer loaded with software written specifically to manage streetlighting operations.

You’ve doubled the price but created the metering infrastructure necessary to pay only for the electricity each light uses. And in the process of updating a basic municipal service, you’ve developed the communications backbone upon which you can hang other technology: cameras for security or to enhance traffic flow via connected signal controllers, and sensors.

So just like wireless technology is changing how we manage highways, it’s turning streetlights into extremely valuable public works real estate.

Now the race is on to deliver the best control node/software package. GE Lighting jumped in late last year with LightGrid. Sensus joined in January with VantagePoint, which uses the company’s FlexNet communication network initially developed for water metering. Companies are partnering; also in January, communications platform provider Trilliant Holdings Inc. and Apollo Metro Solutions joined forces.

As always, whether you’ll be empowered to take this step depends a lot on elected officials. You may encounter pushback over how dimming affects crime rates. The protection against that is to pass legislation absolving municipalities of liability. Electric utilities are not going to be happy about losing money.

Have you had to fight any of these battles? E-mail me at [email protected] to let me know how it turned out.

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