Jun 30, 2021

In its quest to transform its street lighting, the Windy City also found ways to create jobs and heighten safety

By Steve Taggart

In 2017, the City of Chicago, acting through its Department of Transportation (CDOT) and Department of Assets, Information and Services (AIS), formally launched the Chicago Smart Lighting Program (CSLP), a four-year project to transform Chicago’s street lighting system by replacing approximately 85% of the city’s existing street and alley lights with smart LED lights. The technology upgrades occurring in Chicago will not only improve safety and reduce light pollution but will also save the city millions in energy costs and mitigate the need for ongoing lighting repairs. The CSLP is one of the largest LED conversion projects in the country and will create the nation’s largest wireless lighting control network.

Plans for the CSLP have been a long time coming. In November 2015, Chicago started the procurement process to select a contractor to lead the light replacement project. After a 19-month vetting process, Ameresco, a clean technology integrator specializing in energy efficiency and renewable energy, was selected to provide smart-city solutions and upgrade Chicago’s street lighting infrastructure.

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By June 2017, Ameresco and its partners, Itron (formerly Silver Springs Networks) and John Burns Construction Company, commenced work. Once the project wraps up in September 2021, over 270,000 existing outdated high-pressure sodium (HPS) light fixtures will have been replaced with new energy-efficient LED lights, which consume 50% less electricity than their HPS counterparts. The city will also receive the following services: a new Lighting Management System (LMS), infrastructure repairs, 311 integration, GIS integration, electric utility integration and rebate support, and job and system training.

Before any upgrades began, the team performed an extensive analysis of the state of the lighting fixtures and equipment. In total, Ameresco surveyed over 330,000 lights, which required photographing every light pole to assess each pole’s condition. The survey was conducted to determine which damaged or deteriorated fixtures and poles needed replacement or repair. The survey was also used to reconcile the city’s GIS asset locations to ensure all lights were properly identified and to establish a blueprint that would eventually become a digital map of the city’s lighting progress that residents and visitors could track online.

Throughout the entire procurement and asset assessment process, the City of Chicago relied on input from its residents before any new technology was installed. CDOT conducted field tests and installed LED lights in seven neighborhoods, so Chicago residents—with a special emphasis on working families—could provide feedback on new lighting levels and how the new LED fixtures will add value to their communities. Instead of starting the project in areas of the city that experience high traffic volumes, the city began installations in underserved areas that often see higher rates of crime and safety concerns as a way to increase neighborhood security and equitable access to clean technology. The first area in Chicago to receive new lighting was on South Chicago Avenue from 79th to 83rd Streets. Since then, at least six work crews were dispatched per day to remove and replace lighting equipment across all 50 wards of Chicago.

Due to the sheer size of the project, the CSLP required an LMS vendor and node vendor to assist in the execution of work. The intent of the new lighting LMS was to enable remote monitoring and control of the city’s lighting. The vendor implemented several smart-city solutions, including the installation of nodes on cobra head fixtures and ornamental fixtures, and in viaduct lighting controllers to monitor streetlight conditions. Additionally, Ameresco worked with a third-party vendor to design and develop an app, which would support the installation and maintenance of new lighting fixtures and nodes.

One criterion the City of Chicago, CDOT and AIS prioritized when selecting Ameresco as its energy efficiency vendor was to find an organization that would utilize a diverse lineup of subcontractors and create job and training opportunities for Chicago residents. The Smart Lighting Program created many employment opportunities, especially for individuals from economically disadvantaged areas in Chicago. About 50% of the LED light installation work has been performed by residents and at least 10% of those workers are from economically disadvantaged areas. The project is exceeding its 26% Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) participation goal and is also achieving the 6% Women’s Business Enterprise participation goal.

Nearly 50% of the workers assessing the smart lighting project have been graduates of Chicago Public Schools career and technical programs, City Colleges of Chicago construction technology training programs and/or programs for previously incarcerated individuals. At least 50% of new hires have been sponsored for union apprenticeship.

The company trained new hires on assembling the LED technology and decorative retrofits, as well as led maintenance workshops for managing the LMS system. This focus on local labor has resulted in approximately 45% of the fixtures being assembled within the City of Chicago by a minority-owned firm.

When undertaking such a massive infrastructure project, there were a number of logistical challenges that arose throughout the construction and installation. The first was managing the material supply. Ameresco was responsible for purchasing the lighting materials, as well as storing all supplies. With crews working in different locations across the city, the company had to ensure that correct lighting equipment was going to the right place and on schedule. Also, the new LMS system required several updates in order to support the high number of new connected devices.

The COVID-19 pandemic also caused unforeseen challenges, especially as it related to the manufacturing and delivery of nodes. The node lead time was extended to six to seven months. The pandemic forced teams to shift how they worked. Across neighborhoods and in warehouses, crews adjusted their workflow and the number of workers present so they could comply with safety and social distancing precautions while assembling and installing lights.

The biggest hurdle of the CSLP was modernizing the city’s data systems and practices for monitoring outages that had been in place for years. Historically, the city has relied on a “paper and pencil” system to track and follow lights needing repairs and outages. Ameresco provided integration services allowing the LED streetlights to be monitored and controlled on smartphones. Several group training sessions were required to demonstrate the installation of new nodes and the removal of old, so that accurate information would be inputted into the LMS system and data integrity would be maintained. To manage the extremely high amount of data, a new staff member was specifically hired to oversee the transfer of new data, invoicing and integration needs.

New processes were put in place so that services surrounding the newly installed technology could be fully integrated. Ameresco collaborated with Chicago’s 311 system, AIS and CDOT’s Division of Electrical Operations (DEO), and various partners to streamline and reconcile utility records and billing data. The LMS system was integrated with the City of Chicago’s 311 and GIS systems to ensure the data integrity among all platforms.

Despite some logistical challenges, the CSLP is tracking well against its project timeline and is on schedule to be completed by September 2021. Once finished, the City of Chicago will receive a number of benefits. The new lighting fixtures effectively cut associated energy costs in half. These upgrades have made the city eligible for a projected $35 million in energy efficiency rebates from ComEd. Over the next 10 years, it is estimated the CSLP will save taxpayers $100 million through lower electricity costs. The program is also dramatically reducing Chicago’s carbon footprint.

Beyond taxpayer dollars, the smart-city solutions provided will greatly benefit operations, work and life outcomes for the city and its residents. By integrating into Chicago’s 311 system, the new LMS system will alert city officials in real time of outages and repairs, which will greatly reduce the amount of 311 calls the city receives. In years past, Chicago had relied on resident reporting of streetlight outages through the 311 system. Lastly, as more LED lights were installed across the city, the CSLP has greatly improved residents’ overall quality of life and has bridged a gap in access to clean technology and energy. The new LED lights are improving streetscape visibility, leaving neighborhoods safer and more secure.

This article is adapted from the author’s presentation at the 2020 IES Street & Area Lighting Conference.


Steve Taggart

Steve Taggart

Based in Chicago, Steve Taggart has over 17 years of experience in the energy solutions field. At Ameresco, a leading energy efficiency and renewable energy company, Mr. Taggart works with all external and internal team members and has ultimate responsibility for customer... More info »