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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Cities are rushing to replace their legacy streetlights with "smart" LED fixtures that could one day be able to find you a parking space, monitor air quality, and announce an oncoming thunderstorm.

Why it matters: Despite a bumpy and controversial start to some smart streetlight programs, cities are saving tons of money on energy by banishing traditional bulbs — and may soon be able to turn a profit by monetizing data from smart LED sensors or leasing space on light poles.

The big picture: There's been lots of hype about "smart cities," where connected technology helps governments serve us better — but also lots of money wasted on expensive projects that fizzled or caused public outcry over police use of camera surveillance.

Today, hopes have coalesced around the potential for "smart" streetlights, which bear sensors that can do everything from analyzing traffic patterns to assisting 911 operators.

  • "Streetlights are becoming the backbone of larger smart city initiatives," per a report by the Northeast Group, a smart cities market intelligence firm.
  • Cities will invest $8.2 billion in them in the next 10 years, the report said.
  • It will take time: "Overall, over 90% of streetlights will be LED by 2029 and 35% will be connected," Northeast Group said.

Cities large and small — including Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Cleveland — have been replacing traditional streetlights with LEDs, which consume less energy and can be programmed to dim or brighten as needed.

  • "Street lighting can be up to 40% of a city's energy bills, so you see huge cost savings across the board," Benjamin Gardner, president of the Northeast Group, tells Axios.
  • Sensors placed on streetlights have manifold applications and will have more in the future.
  • An Intel white paper envisions a day when streetlights do everything from traffic and parking control to guiding people out of danger during an emergency (by flashing in the direction of evacuation).

"The vision here is to augment the existing infrastructure via the cloud to allow data and additional functionality to flow through what was a dumb asset," Martin Stephenson, head of North America systems & services for Signify, a major connected lighting vendor, tells Axios.

But, but, but: There's been pushback on various fronts.

  • Surveillance: San Diego got scolded by community activists after its police started using video from its $30 million "Smart Streetlights" program.
  • Aesthetics: Light poles gunked up with sensors, cameras and advertisements can look hideous.
  • Health: "Cities and towns throughout Northern California are issuing ordinances that would exclude new 5G cell sites from residential areas, citing supposed health concerns," per the WSJ.

Smart streetlight experts say the industry has taken heed from the San Diego debacle and pulled back on intrusive applications.

What's next: Cities hope eventually to turn their smart streetlights into cash cows — some of which is happening today.

  • The poles can serve as billboards where companies buy ad space.
  • 5G providers and others can pay monthly fees to hang their equipment on light poles.
  • The brass ring for cities is to compile data from smart streetlights and sell it for profit.

The bottom line: "We're seeing a lot of cities buying back their streetlights from utilities," Gardner tells Axios.

  • "Because all of a sudden, they've woken up to the fact that, hey — you know, the boring, kind of arcane corner of the municipal infrastructure space, the street light poles? They're actually critical assets that we need to own and control."

Go deeper

Predictions for the future of "smart cities"

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

"Smart" cities — where technology makes life easier for the people who live and work there — are rapidly becoming reality, but there's still lots of work to do.

A news site, Smart Cities Dive, solicited predictions from readers and offered a list for 2022:

  • The EV charging infrastructure will grow, becoming more convenient and resilient.
  • The "digital divide" in data and technology will narrow, with high-speed internet becoming available to all city residents.
  • "Curb management solutions" will grow more popular, as the pileup of food and package deliveries threatens to overwhelm us.
  • Cities will make bolder climate commitments, like vowing to decarbonize buildings.
  • E-bikes and shared mobility will continue to advance, for environmental reasons and convenience.

What they're saying: Wireless power will become prevalent, Hatem Zeine, founder of a wireless power company called Ossia, predicted to Smart Cities Dive.

  • "Integrating wireless power into buildings and infrastructures will not only allow for reduced wiring and maintenance costs but will also enable consumers to power their smart homes and personal gadgets," Zeine said.
  • "IoT sensors in these devices could track important data such as air quality, temperature, consumption of resources, health and activities around the city, allowing for streamlined analysis and improvements to be made sooner."

Go deeper: The future of "smart" cities is in streetlights

Updated 47 mins ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Trump dogs "dull" DeSantis ahead of potential 2024 matchup

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Donald Trump is trashing Ron DeSantis in private as an ingrate with a "dull personality" and no realistic chance of beating him in a potential 2024 showdown, according to sources who've recently talked to the former president about the Florida governor.

Why it matters: The two are among the most popular Republicans in the country, and as the former president eyes another run in 2024, he's irked by DeSantis' popularity and refusal to rule out running against him.