Silver Spring transfers grid expertise to cities

By Karen Haywood Queen

Published Oct. 5, 2015/Smart Grid Today

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW Many start with smart streetlights, build onto network

With two-way communication, cost savings and improved reliability, smart LED street lighting systems are helping create smart cities – using technology similar to what is being used to build the smart grid, Sean Tippett, director of smart cities at Silver Spring Networks, told us last week in an exclusive interview.

Since it came on the scene in 2002, Redwood City, Calif-based Silver Spring became a leader in critical infrastructure networking – starting with utilities, he said. Silver Spring helped Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) network 5 million devices over 70,000 square miles, he added.

“We’ve spent a lot of time working with our utility customers, helping them securely network their assets. “In doing so, we’ve provided a large amount of value in grid reliability, improved service, better information for customers and better information for utilities,” Tippett said. “We’re starting to see a new customer set emerge over the past couple of years that can benefit from the same technology: cities.”

QUOTABLE: There are a lot of similarities between smart grid and smart city. Both have the need for secure, scalable, multi-application networks. For utilities, critical infrastructure means their smart metering or other smart equipment on the electric distribution grid. For cities, critical infrastructure means their street lighting systems, intelligent traffic systems, smart water networks, smart parking, weather and air quality sensors, EV chargers and more. – Sean Tippett, director of smart cities at Silver Spring Networks, in an exclusive interview

“The common thread is, we network large-scale outdoor devices. We’re able to take all the things we’ve learned from employing smart grid with our utility customers and port them over to cities,” he added.

For cities, streetlights are the first step in becoming smarter, Tippett said. There’s a strong business case for making the move: Over the past two or three years, LEDs have become longer lasting, more energy efficient and less expensive, he noted. “It’s the merging of two technologies,” Tippett said. “LED technology has really started to come down in price. We’re also seeing the full maturation of this utility-scale networking technology for cities.”

LEDs alone yield significant savings, but smart networking yields even more savings, he added. A city switching from legacy high-pressure sodium lights to LED and controls can get its investment back in six to eight years, depending on its costs, a Silver Spring case study found.

Adding two-way communication/networking helps cities save even more because they get to know immediately when a light is out or shining during the day – and so they can avoid sending out patrols to look for malfunctioning lights or waiting for citizens to report problems. Networked LED lights can eliminate up to 90% of truck rolls and cut repair and maintenance costs through more accurate crew dispatching, the case study found.

As Silver Spring began to work with cities, especially small ones such as Fitchburg and Randolph in Massachusetts, it realized some cities looking for a smart city network were not looking to expand their IT departments to support the new technology, Tippett said.

“Utilities typically have robust IT departments, used to owning their equipment and hosting it in their data center. “With some cities, you can see that they don’t have the ability, budget or the desire to build out IT to support the network. That understanding drove us to offer networking as a service,” with all the in-field networking infrastructure and back-office data services to support streetlight networks and other networked applications, he added. A city has only to manage the application by logging in with secure credentials to a mapped system to see if there are any malfunctioning lights.

Florida Power & Light (FPL) is working with Silver Spring on “the largest networked street lights project in the world – more than 500,000 lights,” FPL CEO Eric Silagy said today in prepared remarks. “Establishing a smart street light network will continue the advancement of our smart grid and deliver benefits to our customers, including more reliable and efficient service.”

Silver Spring quoted Silagy as it told the press about an upgrade to its street light and smart city control and management platform, now called “Streetlight Vision 6.” The software has over 100 new features, the firm said, adding that over 500 cities use Silver Spring’s street light-control software.

In addition to the towns in Massachusetts, Silver Spring is working with Bristol, England; Chicago; Copenhagen; Glasgow, and Paris on their smart cities programs, Tippett told us last week.

Streetlights earn savings

The benefits of networked streetlights extend beyond troubleshooting repairs, according to the case study to which Tippett pointed us. Cities with networked streetlights can easily dim the lights and alter the timing to save money. At a smart cities conference in Washington, DC, last month, Tippett discussed case studies from Bristol, Chicago, Copenhagen, Miami and Paris.

After networked streetlights, cities can add more applications such as networked, intelligent traffic systems and environmental sensors to measure CO2 and noise, he said at the event. Copenhagen was one of the first cities to adopt smart street light technology and added more applications over the years, Tippett said.

“They’ve been very proactive about trying to gather all the stakeholders and try to find different ways they could use the system,” he told us.

Boost safety for cyclists

In Copenhagen, where 40% of all trips taken are by bicycle, traffic sensors can work with networked lighting so streetlights brighten when a bike approaches an intersection, Tippett said.

“The bicyclist is able to transition through the intersection in a much safer manner than before.” “That’s especially important in Copenhagen, where bike traffic is expected to grow to 60% of all trips in four years,” he added.

Implementing smart city communication infrastructure may seem daunting, but city leaders who are considering it “can establish a multi-application smart city network through a lighting system. You can do it within budget and you can do it with your existing IT department. Any city can be a smart city,” Tippett assured.