Visitors to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer will find a city transformed by the £0.5bn poured into new sporting venues and beefing up the city’s infrastructure.
But there is an even more fundamental transformation under way in Scotland’s biggest city. By next summer, it will be firmly on track to becoming a world-leading “smart” city, having won £25m from the government’s Technology Strategy Board to show how a city can use cutting-edge digital and wireless technology to provide services such as roads, security and lighting to its citizens more efficiently, while cutting CO2 emissions.
And lighting is one of three key areas where Glasgow is trying to shine as a smart city. In November, the council announced that by next summer the sulphurous orange glow of 10,000 sodium street lights will be replaced with the crisp white light of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and compact fluorescent bulbs, cutting the city’s energy and maintenance bills.
But the really smart bit is that Glasgow will test the way LED lights, unlike their technological predecessors, can be equipped with digital sensors allowing them to be controlled remotely, and to respond to changes in the local environment, such as an increase in traffic. Such intelligent controls can push the average energy savings with LED lighting from 50% to 70%, according to the European commission.
Yet a recent roundtable discussion on the future of lighting in cities – hosted by the Guardian in association with GE Lighting – heard that only 10% of new public streetlights are LED based. So what is preventing LEDs from being installed in every house, skyscraper and city street? How do you flick the switch on the LED revolution?
Ben Ferrari, director of corporate relationships for the Climate Group, a not-for-profit organisation working globally with governments and business on the green economy, told the workshop that LED could be a critical weapon against climate change, as lighting accounts for almost 20% of global electricity use. At the recent UN climate conference in Warsaw, the Climate Group renewed its call for all new public lighting globally to be LED by 2020.
“If we are facing peak emissions this decade, scale for LED isn’t just desirable,” Ferrari said. “We have to get where we are going, and we have to get there quickly.”
The roundtable – which included representatives from industry, law, environmental groups and government-funded bodies – agreed that the technology is now ripe for take-off. One of the biggest barriers to LED competing in the market for general lighting has been high cost. But research from management consultancy McKinsey shows that costs are dropping 30% a year. And efficiency rates and life-spans are going just as quickly in the opposite direction, so that by 2020 the energy saving compared to today’s conventional lighting is expected to reach 90%.
Guardian executive editor Jo Confino, who chaired the discussion, asked if the technology is changing too quickly, making councils reluctant to invest in what is effectively a moving target.
Ronald Hendrikx, partner at Bird & Bird, a law firm that is working with the Department of Energy & Climate Change on the roll-out of smart meters, said that with the rapid growth of companies in the sector, “the amount of choice available is baffling. You don’t know where to stop or start.” Falling costs are also an excuse for cities to put off a decision.
But Iain Watson, director of energy efficiency for the Green Investment Bank (GIB), said the savings in energy and maintenance costs that councils can make by acting today are already so substantial that delay no longer makes financial sense.
Although Glasgow’s decision to replace its street lights was independent of the smart city funding, the money will be used for pilot projects that pair LED lighting on a stretch of road with smart controls and wireless technology, enabling city planners to monitor traffic, air quality, congestion and noise levels, and respond accordingly.
The LED replacement is a simpler proposition. It costs Glasgow £8.5m a year to power and repair its ageing light network. Since the new lamps are expected to use less than half the energy of the old ones, and last three to seven times longer, the council said the £9m investment in LEDs will be quickly recouped.
But recognising the savings requires strategic thinking at a high level, Watson said. “The feeling from the GIB is that we are on the cusp of local authorities understanding the technologies, but you need a visionary to drive forward support for it, because it doesn’t sit in any one team. It needs to get up to the chief executive level to see the benefits, because it is not just the kit that you buy, but the savings you are going to get from it over the long term.”
Dan Palmer, head of market development for the British Standards Institution (BSI), agrees.
“A lot of technology works and could be deployed by cities, but the city isn’t able to act as an intelligent customer,” Palmer said. He added that cities are also unaccustomed to working in partnerships with companies in smart city projects and at a level that spans different departments. “There isn’t a single person whose responsibility it is.”
To overcome this, the BSI was asked by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to come up with smart city guidelines and standards, and it has been working to share the experience of Glasgow and its industry partners with other councils. The first standard will be published next month.
Ersel Oymak, innovations technology manager at Cisco Systems, which is working on Glasgow’s smart city initiative, said one way to sell LED lighting to cities is to focus on its potential to have social benefits that extend far beyond lighting, if used intelligently. Studies have shown that patients in hospital recover better and students achieve more in school if exposed to lighting conditions that adapt to their needs. “We need to raise awareness in local authorities so that they grasp this is the sustainable and strategic thing to do,” Oymak said.
But Agostino Renna, chief executive officer of GE Lighting, said in his experience few cities are capable of such strategic thinking. And the focus on ever-smarter technology runs the risk of putting them off simpler solutions, such as LED replacement.
“I am convinced the answer isn’t more technology,” he said. “I’m a big fan of evolution instead of revolution. Small things that work well, done repeatedly by a lot of people, can make a big difference.”
Several participants called for technology companies to focus less on technology and more on innovative business models that will remove the upfront costs of LED lighting from hard-pressed UK councils facing budget cuts. Bulen Hourshid, director of value engineering at consultancy Aecom, said: “Local authorities have an annual budget. Green technology is all about getting investment back over time. But councils don’t want to invest in something that won’t give them payback within two to three years.”
Dax Lovegrove, head of business engagement at WWF, said one answer could be performance contracts. He pointed to the success of SolarCity in the US, which has cornered the US solar panel market in a few short years by selling solar energy as a service, with no upfront cost to customers to buy and install the solar panels. SolarCity’s customers sign a contract agreeing to pay a monthly fee for electricity that is cheaper than they would pay to their local utility. Financing comes from banks, which get a return for the life of the contract.
John Raspin, partner in the energy and environment group at legal firm Frost & Sullivan, said such performance contracts could be the way of the future. “There needs to be a fundamental thinking shift, from selling a product or solution to selling an outcome.”
Several participants lamented the lack of political will to tackle energy efficiency, with cash-strapped councils neglecting their climate-change targets and the UK government considering scrapping green levies and reviewing its targets for cutting CO2 emissions.
In Brussels, European legislators, who boosted the LED industry by imposing a phased ban on incandescent bulbs, are debating setting binding targets for energy-efficiency savings by 2030, a move that would be another huge fillip to the industry. But Ferrari said strong opposition from business lobby groups could scupper these efforts unless progressive companies champion the cause.
Like GE’s Renna, he thinks the push for LED shouldn’t be mixed up with the drive for smart cities, which will take many years to bear fruit. “The message to cities is don’t wait. There are lots of practical solutions you can do now,” Ferrari said. “They don’t prevent a smart future, but they don’t wait for it, either.”