Does this small island's smart lighting point way ahead for New York, London, Beijing?

Tapping into advances in sensors, automation and internet connectivity, one island's approach to intelligent public lighting could offer lessons for big urban communities.
Written by Tina Amirtha, Contributor

The island of Texel has replaced some streetlights with glowing roadway markings to help eliminate unnecessary light.

Image: Niels de Vries/Tvilight

As concerns mount over global commitments to reducing carbon emissions through the Paris Climate Agreement, some experts see small island communities as the new leaders in the transition to sustainable energy.

On the eastern edge of the North Sea, Texel, the largest of the Dutch Frisian Islands, recently rolled out an island-wide smart public lighting system, making it one of the largest IoT-connected public lighting infrastructures in Europe.

Texel's smart lighting system is designed to reduce the island's energy consumption by 66 percent, a major milestone in becoming completely energy neutral by 2020.

More islands have been investing in IoT programs, taking a cue from the smart cities trend. At the end of March, 36 European island representatives signed a pledge, as part of the EU's Smart Islands Initiative, to invest in digital technology that will fuel Europe's energy transition. The signatories represented 15 European countries, among which was the Netherlands.

These smart islands are exploiting advances in sensors, automation and internet connectivity to drastically reduce their dependence on mainland energy producers.

With about 13,500 inhabitants and a surface area of 170 square kilometers (105 square miles), Texel is the largest of the Frisian Islands, or Wadden Islands, which belong to the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.

Texel has been reducing its reliance on fossil fuels in recent years and its new smart lighting grid is completely energy neutral, powered by solar panels and only activated when sensors detect people or vehicles near street lamps.

The Amsterdam-based smart lighting company Tvilight provided Texel with thousands of wireless controllers that enable the island's street lamps to accurately detect human motion.

"Texel demonstrates what other islands across the globe can achieve with intelligent street lighting," said Chintin Shah, chief executive officer of Tvilight, in a statement.

Along with new hardware, Texel rolled out third-party asset-management software that interfaces with Tvilight's API.

Applying smart islands' successes to mainland communities is technically feasible, albeit on a small scale. The size of an island power grid is comparable to that of a microgrid in a mainland city, where a specific building or campus cannot risk losing power.

"There are lessons that can be learned from islands that are very much applicable to mainland communities, whether those are cities, hospitals, schools or military bases," says Jesse Gerstin, director of programs and policy at the Clinton Climate Initiative, which help island nations move to low-carbon economies through its Islands Energy Program.

Some cities have been moving towards citywide smart lighting systems, but total city coverage is still a rarity.

The startup investment is high, requiring optimizing a city's infrastructure to support rapid data traffic through the internet, installing new hardware and deploying high-level software.

But unlike islands, cities often rely on a relatively large energy grid, reducing the economic incentive to cut energy consumption.

Since 2012, Cisco, Philips and Schneider Electric have worked with the city of Barcelona to introduce a smart public lighting project that aims to upgrade 1,100 city lampposts with LED bulbs that dim in response to reduced nearby movement.

Barcelona's public lighting system now communicates with a control center via the city-wide fiber-optic network, which runs along 500 kilometers (310 miles) throughout the city.

Barcelona estimates that its smart lighting system will help the city save 30 percent of its annual energy consumption.

Aside from saving energy, Texel has a more whimsical incentive to dim its lights at night.

"The old streetlights made watching the night sky difficult because of the giant cloud of orange light hanging over the island. Now, we can see the stars and the Milky Way," says Stephan Kikkert, project leader of Texel's smart lighting project.

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