Dan Evans, Itron Senior Director of Smart Cities, on the Chicago smart lighting project


With the completion of the city of Chicago’s Smart Lighting Programme, Yusuf Latief talked to Dan Evans, Itron’s Senior Director of Smart Cities, about the programme’s implementation, challenges and benefits.

The $160 million programme includes the modernisation of some 280 000 street lighting fixtures with smart models for improved energy efficiency and smart city use cases.

The new lights are expected to use 50-75% less electricity than the ones they replaced, a capability that is expected to help the city halve its energy costs.

The project will also help Chicago save $12.4 million in electricity costs this year alone and over $100 million over the next ten years.

The project was carried out by Ameresco in partnership with the Chicago Department of Transportation, Itron, John Burns Construction and Lyons View Manufacturing.

What was the project like from planning to implementation?

“The project kicked off in some of the more economically challenged areas of the city. We supported Ameresco throughout the planning and deployment of the system. It was a large project and there were some bumps along the way. It took between six and nine months to get things in a good cadence, after which it flew ahead.

The project’s goal was to save $100 million in operational and energy savings over the next decade. Some of the aspects and tools that we provided accelerated the plan from five down to four years.”

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Can you tell me about the step-by-step process as a person on the ground?

“An audit is done in advance of the installation to get the database into a clean form and enable trucks to have all the right gear.

The process is simple from a safety perspective. The road is blocked off, the old fixture is replaced with a new LED fixture. A tool scans a QR code on the fixture, which holds a lot of information about the fixture itself, such as its vendor, date, serial number and wattage etc. The QR scan fills in a form and then it’s onto the next step.

Controllers are assigned to lamps. A similar QR code on the controller is scanned. It takes all the information about the controller and it integrates the two together. As the installer, it is now known which controller belongs to which fixture. Although this might sound obvious, in the throes of installation, incorrect poles tend to be inputted. This would then reflected in the database and creates uncertainty.

The installation then takes place. It’s a very simple twist lock installation with a quick glove test. These installations are usually midday when the lights are off. In these cases, the photosensor is covered to give it the impressions that it’s night. This turns the light on confirming everything’s wired up correctly. That evening, that light will continue to work.

The installation has been confirmed and the team has all the data, which sits in the system. The city can then go in and program.

Part of the smart lighting solution allows a profile to be set up. Not all cities want their lights to go on and off based on ambient light. It can be programmed to turn on 10 minutes before sunset, off five minutes after sunset and perhaps include dimming. This is a big feature of the smart lighting system. This programming happens after the fact and after the installation has happened.

That would be a typical installation process.”

Earlier you mentioned accelerating the project. How was this possible?

“One key area was the installation processes. The crews did a full replacement of the streetlights – taking down old high-pressure sodium bulbs, replacing with new LED fixtures and then attaching the smart controller.

We noticed early on that the crews weren’t necessarily following the same process everywhere. We identified some areas of improvement on the installation process and provided – through partnering with a company we work with – a tool that allows the installer to follow a very simple flow on their iPad or mobile device.

It forced a step-by-step process, which also allowed for the collection of key asset management information. This was then automatically sent into the cloud and into our software.

Before this, some crews would write stuff down with pencil and paper, with some poor soul having to decipher it and upload it into the system. This was happening for thousands of installs every week.

Initially, most resisted this tool but within a few weeks we saw they were moving much quicker and consistently. The data was coming in, it could be trusted, and the crews could perform more installs because they weren’t having to worry about all the manual processes.”

Image: Itron

This was a huge project – $160 million funneled into 280,000 LED replacements. What were some of the challenges you experienced along the way?

“A big one was integrating this solution to the city’s 311 existing system. Before the system was deployed, citizens would call in or log a fault on a website. That was typically how the city was finding out that they had a streetlight out. After a ticket was logged, they would deploy a crew.

To transition from that system, numerous behind the scenes software systems databases would have to be integrated. On the surface this might sound straightforward, but it took a lot longer than originally planned.

We had to figure out the various places the data needed to move while getting multiple parties to coordinate. This included someone at the city managing the system, the Itron folks managing our control system and Ameresco in the middle doing project management.

This coordination – making sure that the architecture and the blueprint was right before you set the developers off for implementation – was a challenge.

It was a lesson learned. Planning needs enough time before the action plan is executed.

A funny challenge post- installation was dealing with some peoples’ reactions.

When LEDs are installed, the common thought is that everyone will be happy – far more light is being projected on the street and making the environment safer.

However, some people reacted negatively to all the light, saying the LEDs were lighting up their porches.

The previous old high pressure sodium light was hidden behind trees and only lighting up the roadway.

Of course, this can be fixed – our technology can dim the light levels down, maybe burn at 80% instead of 100% to satisfy all needs, but it was an interesting comment.

“No, that’s too much light. I don’t want it.”

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What are some of the LED systems’ benefits?

“The system allows for what I call a virtual citizen.

It’s the technology sitting on a light to immediately notify about a problem. It shortens the amount of time to resolve problems, translating to a safer environment.

It ensures that a maintenance crew has the right gear on hand. This prevents repeat trips, as well as wasted time, money and carbon footprint.

The exact problem is known and can be fixed with minimal effort and maximum efficacy.

It also introduces the concept of a metered streetlight. One of the largest bills that the city pays each month is their energy bill for streetlights. The bills are calculated using a very rudimentary flat rate billing.

The number of lights and time they burn are the main factors for calculation. It has no reflection on what’s happening on the street. One shouldn’t be billed for power that isn’t there. The industry is moving towards metered usage.

This type of tech allows for that metering capability, which would benefit the utility. The utility bill will be based on actual usage rather than a flat rate formula.

Lower the budget, lower the taxes.”

Considering last year’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, what kind of smart city investments do you think we should be on the lookout for?

“I think EV (electric vehicles) is one of the biggest. There was a very large amount of money that they identified for EVs. This is from both a utility perspective – in respect to grid stability – and from a consumer-to-consumer-citizen perspective – answering questions about charging stations, etc.

Questions are raised however about the infrastructure.

It’s important to quantify traffic and areas of congestion for example, something the sensors we are working with could allow.
Another is Wi-Fi access. Deploying Wi-Fi into economically challenged areas of the city is important.

Although people are trying to secure grants, the money isn’t flowing just yet. Hopefully by the end of the year we will start seeing real projects tapping into that funding resource.”

With the completion of the Chicago lighting project, the future holds new promise for the potential innovations that smart cities can adapt. Whether to do with lighting, waste management or construction, the way forward is not only evolving, but exciting. Especially in light of this latest bill, there will be a lot to look out for as cities continue to evolve.

This interview is published as Itron hosts its Itron Inspire EMEA, a virtual customer conference featuring various sessions from industry leaders and colleagues to share how new technology can help drive business transformation.