Chicago is spending $160 million on smart street lights

The project aims to replace 270,000 lights with remotely-controlled and auto-dimming LEDs expected to slash energy consumption and pay for themselves.

Joining the rising swell of cities attempting to cut costs with modern street lights, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s office plans to replace 270,000 street LED lights with up to $160 million in funding for the effort.

“This project is a win-win — it will deliver one of the largest lighting modernization programs in the country while addressing one of the top reasons residents call 311,” Emanuel said in a release. “Under this proposed project we will be delivering modern, reliable and high-quality lighting that will improve quality of life in every Chicago neighborhood.”

The initiative, announced on Tuesday, is headed by the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), the Chicago Infrastructure Trust (CIT) and is provided by the energy infrastructure firm Ameresco. More than just brighter lights, the four-year undertaking adds a degree of automation. The LEDs will be able to sense and react to ambient lighting conditions and utility workers can turn them on, off or dim them remotely. 

Yet the real advantage of the new bulbs will be their ability to cut costs and reduce pollutants spewing from fossil fuel energy plants. The city’s energy portfolio has a has a few coal and gas plants and the city estimates it will consume 50 to 75 percent less electricity compared to its current set of high pressure sodium lights.


Emanuel is banking on the lower energy costs to pay for the multi-million-dollar project, though there’s been no report of how long it will take to recoup the costs.

Even so, the hefty price tag seems to be a deal when compared with Detroit’s lighting project that was completed last December. Detroit paid about $185 million over three years to replace just 65,000 lights with LEDs, as opposed to Chicago’s 270,000.

“This project represents a significant investment in Chicago’s future and specifically our neighborhoods,” Chicago Treasurer and CIT Chair Kurt Summers said. “By modernizing our infrastructure, the city will save money over the long term through lower energy costs and vastly improve the lighting on our streets and alleys.

The city said installation of the fixtures begins this summer and will prioritize neighborhoods on its south and west side communities that might enjoy some public safety benefit that comes with improved lighting.

The lights are also planned to be installed along a dozen high traffic thoroughfares. Once finished, Chicago says the city will have replaced 85 percent of its street lighting.


Other cities investigating or doing similar projects include Dallas, that has launched a pilot with General Electric, San Diego, also using the modern lights to monitor traffic via sensors, and San Leandro, California.

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