Is Smart Lighting for the Birds?

In addition to greater efficiency and control, smart lighting may benefit wildlife.

The evolution of street and area lighting over the last decade is part of the larger effort to modernize the electric grid, improve energy efficiency, and lower costs. Highly-efficient LED lights have become the standard for new and replacement street lighting. Automation technologies, driven by sensors that connect to a smart grid network, allow utilities to control light settings, respond to outages, and even monitor voltage levels across the distribution system.

But adoption of smart lighting may also provide important benefits to nature and wildlife.

In 2017, a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed what had been long suspected: high-intensity artificial lights can have a detrimental effect on migratory birds. According to the Audubon Society, migratory birds use nighttime celestial cues as “star maps” to guide them and can become confused and disorientated by lights on the ground.

Along with birds, other creatures, including sea turtles, are attracted to and often endangered by intense lighting.

Organizations, such as the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), have taken notice and in 2020, the IES joined with the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) to publish a set of guiding principles for responsible outdoor lighting. The five principles state that lighting should be useful, targeted, no brighter than necessary, controlled, and “warm” in color.

“For the first time, we are seeing organizations in the industry reach common ground on how to minimize light pollution,” said Jeff Libis, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for LED Roadway. Landis+Gyr partners with LED Roadway for smart lighting products used in the Gridstream® Connect utility IoT solution. The complementary advances in lighting technology and integration with smart grid networks is helping solve problems for utilities needing to manage lighting impacts.

Light color is an area where advances in LED street lights are paying dividends. Initial LED luminaires were in the 5000K (degrees Kelvin) range. This blueish, intense light creates problems for wildlife. Lighting fixtures in a warmer, less intense 3000K range are now available in many lighting applications.

As part of an experiment in Brisbane Australia, the Liveable Cities division of LED Roadway Lighting tested the use of limited-wavelength LED light to avoid interference with nearby nesting sea turtles. The results showed that using a longer wavelength, reddish-tone LED provided the required sight lighting while not distracting from natural celestial light, which turtle hatchlings use as a guide to the ocean.

When it comes to lighting control, smart sensors are rapidly replacing reliance on photocells and other less dynamic means of control. The sensors give lighting operators the ability to customize lighting intensity and remotely turn off or schedule light activation.

Currently, utilities in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest are using the Landis+Gyr Street Light Controller, a smart sensor that enables remote control and lighting asset monitoring, to support programs aimed at protecting migrating wildlife. This technology allows utilities to better manage light pollution and adapt to seasonal migration patterns while maintaining public safety.

“The value proposition (for smart lighting) is getting easier to make. You save money, you conserve energy, and you have the ability to better control light pollution,” Libis said.

In this sense, smart lighting really is for the birds … and the turtles … and the rest of the natural environment.


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