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Wilmington’s LED transition is a first step to a smart city

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On the surface, a project to replace 215 Wilmington streetlights with LED lighting is a first step toward next-generation energy efficiency. 

But this celebrated technology upgrade signals a bigger potential change for Delaware cities. First, the new lights will be tied together into a network, allowing the power company to adjust them from a central location or brighten them automatically.

Second, the new lights are designed to piggyback new layers of connected technology. The pilot project between the city of Wilmington and Delmarva Power is testing three so-called “smart city” technologies: air quality monitoring, traffic control, and gunshot detection.

Sensors on the streetlights can tell whether the parking spots beneath them are occupied. This data could be shared with drivers (looking for an open spot) or the city (going after parking scofflaws).

“I like to call streetlights the springboard to our strategy around connected communities,” said Dana Small, director of smart grid and technology for Delmarva Power, Atlantic City Electric and Pepco.

Even as it promises to make city services more efficient, this technology is raising new questions about privacy and data security. Can streetlight cameras track people or vehicles? How will Delmarva Power, which owns the data, store, use and share it? 

Regulators treat utilities as providers of power, water, and other services, not the data-collection platforms they are becoming. 

As Wilmington seeks to upgrade all 7,050 of its streetlights, local officials are just beginning to grapple with the wider implications of smart grid technology. 

Brighter, whiter, cheaper

The push for better lighting was driven by concerned residents, said Kelly Williams, Wilmington public works commissioner. “It started to be clear that LEDs were being requested all over the city.”

Though the light from these new LEDs will be at the same brightness as before, it will be more visible than streetlights today, Williams and Delmarva Power say.

The light will be whiter and more uniform, which the company says improves public safety and is preferable to drivers. The city declined to make someone from its police department available to talk about how the lights could deter crime and improve public safety.

But there are questions about the light’s effects on bodies. 

The color temperature of light is measured on the Kelvin scale, with lower numbers appearing orange or yellow and higher numbers more white, then blue. The new streetlights will be at 4,000K, which is considered a neutral choice, according to Delmarva Power. 

Light is intricately tied to our biology; as the day wanes our bodies prepare for slumber by suppressing our hunger and lowering our temperature. Citing the effects of bright light on our bodies and our sleep, the American Medical Association encourages the use of 3,000K or lower outdoor lighting.

In a response, Delmarva Power said they respect the AMA’s recommendation but follows the standards put in place by the lighting industry. They also pointed to a 2016 Department of Energy article that said, at a given power and wavelength, there is nothing uniquely dangerous about LED lights. Other cities that have transitioned to LED lighting have dealt with complaints that the whiter light is pushing into homes and apartments. Delmarva Power is able to change individual streetlights by directing their light away from certain areas, Small said.

One benefit of these lights is beyond dispute: they’re cheaper to run and operate. They use about 40% to 50% less electricity. In addition, the ability to dim the lights remotely saves another 20% to 30%. 

The lights can also report back if they’re burning during the day or otherwise not working, saving on maintenance costs.

About three-fourths of Wilmington’s streetlights are owned by Delmarva Power and about one-fourth by the city. This disparity occurred over time, as the power company erected lights to illuminate darkened streets, and the city added decorative lamp posts, park lighting, and other supplemental lighting. 

The pilot project is bringing LED lighting to West Center City and stretches of Washington Street, Baynard Boulevard and North Market Street. The new lights should be installed by early September.

To fund LED conversions for the rest of the city’s lights, Wilmington’s mayor has submitted legislation to the City Council to borrow $2.1 million from a state fund over 20 years. Given the project is estimated to save at least $150,000 a year, the loan is expected to be funded by the conversion. 

Delmarva Power will replace its lights on its own timetable, though the city has asked that the conversions happen within two years.

Smart cities raise privacy, security risks

The other parts of the project — the sensors that tie the lights together in a network and the smart city technology to monitor traffic, gunshots and air quality — is funded entirely by Delmarva Power. The data collected by these devices will be owned by the utility and accessible only the company and city. 

Broadly, there are two concerns with smart-city technology: privacy and security.

Though hacking a streetlight might seem pointless, smart city technology creates new vulnerabilities. The utility will treat this data with the same care that it already gives to usage data for its gas and electricity customers, Delmarva Power says.

Williams, the public works commissioner, says the importance of cybersecurity is “on the top of our minds.”

In 2016, the Delaware Public Service Commission decided against implementing cybersecurity requirements for utilities, instead requiring them to submit information about their security guidelines every year.

When it comes to privacy, this pilot project appears to have little impact. 

The lights will not collect video footage. Though two of them will look like cameras, they can only capture still pictures that are used for traffic analysis, the utility says.

Though Williams said she does not foresee any “Big Brother” implications from this project, it is easy to imagine how a smart city could surveil its citizens in the name of public safety. 

Furthermore, there appears to be little regulation around the collection, storage, and use of this new data.

Despite these risks, the project has futuristic promises. Williams suggested a gunshot anywhere in the city could light brighten nearby lampposts, revealing the shooter. And Small wonders if the next generation of autonomous vehicles could use streetlight-based networks to navigate. 

As Williams put it, “This LED project is going to serve as the backbone to us becoming a smart city.” 

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