What do you get when you combine a lightbulb, a sensor, and a network connection? That question sounds like the setup for a bad joke, but it is actually the secret to solving our energy problems.
When the city of Oslo decided to replace its outdated street lighting system, it could have simply installed modern fixtures. Instead, the city built a cutting-edge automated lighting system. These high-tech lights produced amazing results. The new lights burned only 30% as much power, took service trucks off the road, and even reduced the number of traffic accidents. Who knew that the humble streetlight could do so much?
Here's how the system works: each streetlight has a network connection, so that the entire city's lights can be programmed from a central location. This allows the city to slowly dim the lights during sunrise, and then gradually bring them back up during sundown. This intelligent dimming saves a huge amount of power while ensuring safe lighting levels. The city also discovered that dimming the lights during rush hour caused drivers to slow down, thereby reducing accidents.
The new lights also feature sensors that detect the health of each light. This provides another important savings. In the past, the city had to send out maintenance workers to check for burnt-out lights. Now the city gets advance warning when a light is deteriorating. That means no more wasted maintenance trips, and no more burnt-out lights.
The thing that really interests me about this story is that these same ideas apply to a nearly limitless range of applications. Communications technology has become so inexpensive that it can be implanted in all kinds of devices. Imagine having intelligent sensor networks in your homes, offices and factories. We could save incredible amount of power and money—and gain new capabilities at the same time!
Happily, numerous companies are working on this very goal. For example, the Oslo system was created by Echelon, a company that has been quietly plugging away at energy management for many years. Echelon has done some impressive work in areas including smart grids, building automation, and transportation systems. I got to meet with them at ESC and came away excited about the future of energy. To get into the excitement yourself, check out their web site. It has lots of fascinating case studies that will surprise and inspire you.