The smart cities handbook on LED streetlights to make India not only brighter but intelligent too, says Puneet Randeo, Business Development Head – Appliances, Heating, Lighting and Smart Cities, UL South Asia

Like some of humanity’s greatest inventions, LED technology in the early 1960’s was discovered by a stroke of accident rather than design. The excitement that rippled through scientific circles at this revolutionary new technology was potent enough to christen the new device as ‘the magical one’ and ‘the lamp of the future’.

The turn of phrase may seem a tad too grandiose in today’s times of near constant innovation, but the fact remains that LED technology has transformed the way we consume light, both in the public and private spheres. The Indian government has been quick on the uptake, harnessing LED bulbs as change agents for achieving its grand plan of making India an energy wise country.

Lighting up the right way

The government’s astute two pronged strategy for employing LED lights, implemented through the public energy services company Energy Efficiency Savings Limited (EESL), is focused on stirring conscious consumerism on one hand and on the other, suffusing the country’s ever growing urban sprawls with dependable street lights, a key infrastructural requirement.

While massive consumer outreach has been achieved through the UJALA scheme, the Street Lighting Programme (SLNP), touted as the largest mobilization effort for energy conservation, was launched in 2015. The programme came into being as a result of a study that found that 80% of the street lights in the country were installed in a ‘haphazard manner’.

In both urban and rural scenarios, streetlights are vital tools to reduce road fatalities and keep crime under check. However, for municipalities, street lighting is an expensive undertaking – amounting to anywhere between 5% – 60% of electricity cost, according to one often quoted estimate by the Clinton Climate Initiative. For a country with one of the largest number of local governments in the world, street lights are hence a pain point, both in terms of pressure on the exchequer as well as delivery of public services. Further, whether they are improperly spaced, incorrectly sized or sourced from low priced tenders, street lighting is rife with procedural bottlenecks, which is only made worse by a lack of technical expertise for implementation of street lighting programmes in local governments.

The world over, LEDs have become an irresistible choice for street illumination and it is not too hard to wonder why – with their generous life spans – they last nearly twice to four times longer of ordinary street lights – they keep state coffers rich. Devoid of heat effusing, harmful gases and chemicals, they help in protecting the environment, while their distinctive, bight glow aids in fighting crime and even keeping pesky bugs at bay.

Which is why SLNP’s herculean wish list is all the more significant – the programme seeks to replace 3.5 crore conventional streetlights with high performing LED ones in a 100 cities – an exercise that would amount to an energy savings of 9 million units and monetary savings of 5,500 crores for municipalities. According to GOI estimates, the positive results of the SLNP programme are already starting to show – with over 21 lakh street lights replaced with LEDs and 295 million Kwh of energy has been saved.

While this is certainly impressive, there is more to street lights than just energy savings, and the smart cities in India are becoming the harbingers of the exciting prospects that LED street lights actually offer.

Standing poles apart

As anyone who has renovated their homes to accommodate LED lights will know, adopting the technology in its entirety is not as simple as unscrewing a bulb and replacing it with a new one – the entire fixture has to be retrofitted or changed. Though it is an expensive undertaking, smart cities in India have shown that it is well worth the cost.

Making full use of the influx of funding and investor interest, some of these designated smart cities have begun installing ‘smart poles’ in lieu of ordinary street lights. Equipped with high tech sensors, these poles can control the brightness of the LED light in accordance with the traffic on the road, fostering greater energy efficiency. From traffic management to weather and pollution monitoring systems and even wireless technology, there is no dearth of features these poles can be modified with. The most attractive feature of the smart pole perhaps is that it can ‘self-fund’ if the municipality decides to rent out the ‘digital real estate’ atop the pole, which may even result in additional revenue flowing in.

In a project to be implemented through the PPP model, Indore Smart Development Fund, for instance, has allocated Rs. 300 crores to install 800 smart poles with 70,000 LED lights. The New Delhi Municipal Corporation has already begun the tendering process for installing over 55 smart poles in Central Delhi by the end of this year. The most ardent fan of the smart pole concept seems to be Bhopal, which has spent a whopping Rs. 690 out of Rs. 720 crores on smart poles alone.

In a country where 300 million people live off the grid, the existence of such an advanced, radical technology may seem incongruous. However, with the government already on an irrevocable path toward reducing carbon footprints while simultaneously improving access to reliable electricity, there is no better time to take a leaf out of the smart city handbook and lay the foundation for installing smart poles around the country.

Making LED performance an essential criteria for installation

If the government were to seriously consider expanding the installation of smart poles, which it ideally should, it is imperative that the LED component, being a nascent and expensive technology, is evaluated for quality, safety and reliability criteria. The abrupt boom of LED lighting in India, is no doubt due to the transparent procurement processes and easing of entry barriers initiated by the government. As LED is largely an imported technology, there is huge pressure on the suppliers to assemble products in record time. In this scenario, there is every possibility that inferior quality imports will make their way into the Indian lighting universe.

While the government tenders do specify for warranty and guarantee by the supplier – upto 7 years for street lighting and 3-5 years for other luminaires, depending on the burning hours – these provisions only cover the risk of the project investment, but do not validate the sustainability of the programme in the long term.

Given the newness of the technology, it is prudent for the government to evolve a transparent fact-finding protocol to assess the degree of sustainability of the LED streetlights. Much like the renewable movement in the country, the focus should not be on increasing the number of installations as much as on assuring the quality and reliability of the projects over their lifespans.

The immediate measure which the government could undertake is to develop a matrix of audits or surveys for evaluating the viability of the LED products used. This matrix can be based on the number of years of guarantee given by the supplier as per the tender norms, as well as the level of conformity achieved during the primary audit when initially supplied. Rather than a one-time audit at the time of installations, the number of evaluations should be based on the deviation in quality from the time of the first audit – more the deviation, more number of audits and vice versa. The following parameters should be considered while developing such a matrix:

Safety Aspect : The Electrical Safety is primary concern which ensure the safe use of the Products ; and since the Blue Ray Hazard for the LEDs has its own challenges ; thus the photo biological safety requirements should be addressed mandatorily
Reliability aspects, where factors such as surge protection, wide voltage range, IP class protection, mechanical body, heat sink design of the product are scrutinized according to existing global standards. The Indian standards are currently being harmonized with the international ones.

Performance aspects, which measures depreciation of light and driver, on site lighting levels, power factor and light distribution among others, to ensure that the LED lighting ecosystem is sustainable over its claimed life cycle.
Cyber Security aspects, as the deployment of Internet of Things would call for the enhancement of cyber security. With the inclusion of wireless networks, cyber security becomes an imposing danger, as smart poles can be hacked by mercenaries to possibly black out the city.

Through a combination of in-house tests and field surveys, a special task force constituted for the purpose of assessing the quality, safety, reliability and sustainability paradigms of LED street lighting should be constituted, before the government plans to advance the technology on an even larger scale.

Conclusion

Like several emerging industries that have flourished as a result of the government’s focus on ameliorating energy and infrastructure bottlenecks in the country, the LED lighting industry has witnessed a sharp surge in growth prospects. As the technology is new and ever changing, several countries are hesitant to adopt it on a large scale without proper standards and conformity assessment programmes in place. While the government’s initiative for transitioning to LED is certainly admirable, it must tread the uncharted waters with caution and devise mechanisms to optimize the technology with elements of validity and compliance clearly defined in the implementation policy.

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