For cities switching to LED street lamps, a place to see the light

A new lab near Copenhagen gives lighting vendors a place to showcase their latest designs and city officials a place to view them in a real urban setting. (David Zinck)

ALBERTSLUND, Denmark — If you’ve ever bought a compact fluorescent light bulb, or one of the newer LEDs, you may have been surprised to find their light brighter or cooler or yellower or bluer than you may be accustomed to in, say, your kitchen.

The same is true with street lighting for cities — only the choices are much more complicated. There are dozens of lighting vendors to choose from, all touting innovations in technology and energy efficiency. Trees or the texture of nearby buildings can affect urban lighting quality in unpredictable ways. And increasingly, street lighting choices are becoming intertwined with the promising if dizzying array of “smart city” technologies that aim to manage traffic, wastewater and other urban headaches.

To help cities and utilities figure it all out, the Danish Outdoor Lighting Lab, or DOLL, opened a test facility here last week. Situated in a drab industrial park 20 km outside Copenhagen, the DOLL living lab is like a giant showroom for the latest designs in city street lighting. One of its primary goals is to help municipal officials, from Denmark, across Europe and perhaps from around the world, see the lights for themselves in a real urban environment.

At the opening ceremony, I got to take a tour of DOLL’s living lab and its nearly 10 km of streets and bike paths lit with products from more than two dozen vendors. As the sun went down, the lights came up. There were lights shaped like rectangles, squares, circles and halos. They were fixed to tall poles and short poles, and poles with round or octagonal shafts. Some of the lights gave off cold white light, others warmer yellowish light; decorative lights outside a bike-path tunnel gave off a show of psychadelic colors.

DOLL’s street light lab covers an area of 2 million square meters with 10 km of streets and paths for vendors to show their latest lighting designs. (DOLL)

Green thinking was everywhere. Some lights were powered by solar panels, others by tiny windmills. There were lamp posts with batteries, some underground and others aboveground. Along one bike path, the lights were dim until sensors picked up the presence of a jogger —  the lights brightened in sequence following the runner down the path, then dimmed again to save energy once he had passed.

With cities around the globe now looking at upgrading street lighting to save money and cut greenhouse-gas emissions, it’s important that local officials understand their choices, says DOLL’s director, Flemming Madsen. In Denmark, Madsen notes, municipalities run not just street lights but also the schools, sports facilities, day care centers, and homes for the elderly. “Municipalities are our foremost group of clients,” he says. “They really operate a lot of lighting in the public space.”

Three labs for lights

DOLL is not one lighting lab but actually three of them, intended to make Denmark a global leader in LED lighting for both outdoor and indoor uses. DOLL is established as a consortium consisting of three partners: the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), the municipality of Albertslund and Gate 21, which is itself a partnership between local authorities, private companies and research institutions.  

One DOLL facility is a “quality lab,” where anything about lighting quality and performance can be measured in one of Europe’s best photonics research environments. Based on the tests made here, municipal governments or other clients can verify the claims made by LED manufacturers. And lighting companies can get a stamp of approval on their product, stating that it has been tested by DOLL — a neutral authority.

“Municipalities are our foremost group of clients,” says DOLL director Flemming Madsen. “They really operate a lot of lighting in the public space.” (Gate 21)

The second facility is a “virtual lab,” where lighting manufacturers and their customers can use 3-D animations to simulate how different lighting solutions would work in different environments. This makes it possible to test out different technologies before they’re fully developed. In the future, DOLL hopes to make this service available remotely. “You’ll be able to sit anywhere in the world and access DOLL on your screen,” Madsen says. “We can provide you with images and tests and you can ask questions. We are truly global, so we can bring in situations and challenges from all over the world and simulate them.”

Then there’s the new outdoor “living lab” in Albertslund, the largest facility of its kind in Europe. Big lighting companies have their own outdoor test facilities, but DOLL’s goal was to put small  companies on a level playing field. “We gladly welcome Philips, Osram, Siemens, all the big cats,” Madsen says. “But we focus a lot on offering the small and medium-sized enterprises an opportunity to be equal to them and show their products under the same conditions.”

‘Smart city’ test ground

The living lab is also poised to test “smart city” applications that take advantage of the street lighting infrastructure. All lamp posts in the outdoor lab are connected to a central network wired by Cisco. From a control room in the industrial park’s only high-rise building, customers can test out any solutions the lighting vendors are willing to showcase.

“Lamp posts will become like a mobile phone,” Madsen says one of the manufacturers at DOLL once told him. “In the beginning we used the mobile phone just for talking. Now we take photos, send mail, browse, watch movies and do many other things with it. The lamp posts will gather and transmit data on UV radiation from the sun, acoustic qualities and noise, humidity, temperature, traffic and air pollution. That’ll happen through the lighting infrastructure.”

From DOLL’s control center, clients can test out new “smart city” applications that involve street lighting. (Jeppe Carlsen/DOLL)

At the living lab’s opening, I met Jesper Primdahl. He had driven five hours, from about as far away from Albertslund as you can get in Denmark. He is project coordinator at Thy-Mors Energi, a company that delivers energy to four municipalities in the northwestern part of Denmark. Primdahl sees great potential in bringing his customers — the engineers from the municipalities or buyers from large housing estates — to DOLL.

“We technicians have a tendency to get too technical, when we explain the possibilities,” says Primdahl. “Here in the living lab, our customers can see and experience LED lighting and dimming.”

Primdahl does not expect his customers to jump on the very advanced solutions with solar cells or windmills running the light. Municipalities, he says, mainly want to get solutions that work now and cost little. But considering the bare budgets of the cities he works with, Primdahl is sure they’ll find the cost-saving LED lights and dimming attractive.  

Many other Danish municipalities are on the brink of having to replace street lights in the coming years — about 200,000 in all, according to Albertslund Mayor Steen Christiansen. Copenhagen is set to replace 20,000 street lights with LEDs, part of the city’s goal to become the first carbon-neutral world capital by 2025. Albertslund plans to replace some 8,000 street lights over the next 10 to 15 years.

Jobs for an ailing suburb

In Albertslund, there are high hopes that the lighting lab can accomplish yet another goal: turning around a town where unemployment is a few points higher than Denmark’s 5.7 percent average.

Most of Albertslund was built in the 1960s, when it grew from 3,000 inhabitants to 30,000. More than 60 percent of the homes here are council housing, bland single-story concrete boxes packed tightly together. Planners here separated pedestrians and bicyclists from “hard traffic” with a complex system of pedestrian and bike paths that connected the whole area.  

Decorative lighting is also on display at the DOLL living lab. (Gate 21)

In the 1960s and 70s, Albertslund also housed the largest industrial and manufacturing park in Scandinavia. After some prosperous decades, many manufacturers closed down or left. While some storage and logistics companies remain, the area is a bit of a ghost town where the main activity is young people racing cars at night on the long straight roads.

This is where the living lighting lab is set up. At the opening last week, Mayor Christiansen welcomed more than 200 guests in a building that used to be a Coca-Cola bottling plant. To explain why Albertslund is a partner in DOLL, he cited a refrain from an old Fleetwood Mac song: “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” Albertslund is already known as a front-runner on green solutions — the town recently won an award for energy-efficient retrofits of existing housing.

With the lighting test center, Christiansen hopes Albertslund can attract lighting researchers, as well as branch offices of lighting companies — and create more jobs at the industrial park. At the same time, the center could become something of a business destination for vendors and buyers from all over the world to test and see different new lighting solutions full scale in one place. The strategy is already paying off: In a couple of weeks, Albertslund and Copenhagen will host a major international lighting conference.

DOLL will be a benefit to every single citizen, the local well-being and the global climate,” Christiansen said. “It is good for Albertslund and it is good for the world.”

See more of DOLL’s living lab in this video. (In Danish and English)

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Annemarie is an editor and journalist based in Copenhagen mainly working with subjects related to politics, green technologies and society.  Full bio

LEARNING FROM ALBERTSLUND

  • DOLL’s outdoor lighting lab is a place where municipal officials can see LED lights in an urban environment before buying them.
  • Other DOLL labs verify lighting vendors’ claims about the quality of their products and create 3-D simulations of lighting products in different environments.
  • Albertslund hopes a declining industrial park will be revived with lighting researchers and branch offices of lighting companies who want to locate near the lab.

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