Some South Side streetlights are getting smarter.
In late September, cutting-edge technology came to a few carefully chosen CPS Energy streetlamps around Brooks. As one of San Antonio’s designated innovation zones, the vicinity welcomes “SmartSA,” a pilot-program partnership between the city and CPS Energy.
“Smart” in this sense means connected to networks, which can be controlled or monitored remotely, through Wi-Fi or fiber-optic cables. Smart fixtures are a prominent feature of the “Internet of Things,” or IoT, one of urban planning’s hot new concepts.
The program is starting on a small scale, with various sensors installed on just 15 streetlights in each of the city’s three innovation zones — Brooks, downtown and the South Texas Medical Center.
“Brooks is a great location for an innovation zone,” said Brooks Director of Property Development Marques Mitchell. “It’s a natural proving ground for technology that can roll out later.”
Mitchell said discussions on where to places the test lights at the former Air Force base started in early September.
Crews installed the lights Sept. 23 on Research Plaza between South New Braunfels Avenue and Inner Circle Road.
The lights offer more than just illumination with indicators for air temperature and quality, noise detection, a smart-parking component and flood control.
The latter feature is important for Brooks, which has some flood-prone areas, Mitchell said.
“If we could have a flood-control module on the pole and be able to communicate that information to our residents in real time, it could be very helpful,” he said.
Jonathan Tijerina, CPS Energy senior director for business and economic development, said the gear is designed to “enable new efficiencies.”
“The three innovation zones each have their own characteristics. Brooks in particular is looking at expansion, transportation needs, and a little bit of flooding issues in some areas,” Tijerina said, noting the city held workshops and developed case studies for different uses.
The city’s Office of Innovation has been configuring the tests, brainstorming with other city departments and surveying residents and businesspeople in the innovation zones about what applications are most useful.
Itron, a global networking company serving cities and utilities, will install the pilot project free of charge. Information will be analyzed for effectiveness to determine what comes next.
“CPS Energy is replacing a lot of their streetlights with new energy-efficient LED lights that are remotely controllable – that was kind of the foundation for the program,” said Smart City Coordinator Emily Royall. “This could help us look at the city from a new lens, to collect and evaluate useful data, and see ways to retrofit our community with innovations that citizens can use.”
There are other perks to sensors on smart streetlights, she added.
They can alert authorities to heat islands, a serious problem where lots of asphalt radiates thermals. Solutions can then be planned, such as planting trees or using different paving, Royall said.
“Air quality is another issue, and some of the sensors measure carbon dioxide and more elements in the air to see where that is worst. Some sensors collect noise-pollution data, others can be used to map rainfall and flooding,” she added.
According to Royall, the city and San Antonio River Authority are collaborating on a flood-prediction model, and stats from a rainfall-gauge instrument that can help calibrate high-water projections.
“We are always looking for ways to integrate new technology into the grid, and we’ve been working on smart streetlights for a couple of years,” said Richard Medina, vice president of grid transformation and engineering at CPS Energy. “We manage over 120,000 streetlights in San Antonio. Without technology, we have to rely on people calling us to tell us a light is out. As the old lights fail, we replace them with the new technology. I think about 70% of our lights are LED now. I believe Brooks has a lot of the newer ones we put in when they were reconstructing streets in there.”
CPS Energy will gather information on operating the lights themselves; San Antonio will manage the other data, he added.
LED lighting and smart grids are the environmentally friendly, energy-efficient wave of the future, as cities from San Diego, California, to Schenectady, New York, have found, officials said.
But in some areas, adding monitoring sensors, including cameras and recording devices, have privacy advocates urging restraint.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s nationwide Community Control Over Police Surveillance campaign is focused on pressuring municipalities to build public oversight into decisions about smart-city technologies.
Invasion of privacy won’t happen in San Antonio, Royall said; don’t expect facial recognition or license-plate readers, either.
“All the data we will collect is environmental, not invasive. What’s important is making useful data available to the community,” she said.