A promising patent could allow Chattanooga-based Global Green Lighting to use city streetlights to power smart devices across the city, reducing the need for cell towers and other special mounts for video cameras, air quality sensors and Wi-Fi transmitters.
The lights come with their own antennas and power supply, which can be plugged into EPB's gigabit fiber to create the first-ever "gig light."
But thanks to a combination of technical delays and a penny-pinching mandate by Chattanooga's previous city council, there's a chance the company could end up shedding jobs and powering down before the new invention sees the light of day.
If Global Green's technology works as advertised, it would turn every streetlight into a piece of vertical real estate that can be rented out to cell service and Internet service providers, or used to aid in public safety efforts -- which Mayor Andy Berke has said is his No. 1 priority.
From inside their police car, officers can already brighten the lights in case of a disturbance, pulse them to signal trouble or dim them to save power. With the new technology, they could use the same technology to look around corners with help from video cameras mounted on the streetlight, pinpoint the origin of gunshots or amp up the city's wireless grid.
The company's lights are already saving the city an estimated 20 percent on its power bill, and will save an estimated $2.7 million per year on power costs when installed around the city, according to Global Green's figures. More than 25 other cities are waiting to see the results of Chattanooga's green lighting experiment, with an estimated $450 million in funds earmarked for Global Green Lighting's breakthrough product.
But Berke's team says the mayor is bound by a mandate from the previous city council to evaluate the first batch of 6,100 streetlights before moving to replace all 26,500 units in the city's lighting portfolio. Such an evaluation, which is currently scheduled for early 2014, would effectively shutter the company's production line while it waits for a verdict.
Global Green Lighting originally won a contract in 2012 to replace all of the city's streetlights, and the company moved its operations from China to Chattanooga as part of the $18 million deal. City officials hailed the move, which they said showed that Chattanooga remains a bright spot for innovation, manufacturing and cooperation between the public and private realms.
Don Lepard, the electrical engineer who founded the company in 2009 during the recession, originally intended to hire 250 workers, who he anticipated would soon be building the smart lights for cities all over the country.
But disagreement over the price tag in Chattanooga's city council and questions about the actual cost savings resulted in the city following through on just one-third of the original deal, pending data that showed a discernible cost savings for the landmark project.
Lepard nonetheless decided to stay in Chattanooga, but was only able to hire 40 workers instead of the original 250, and went through a $2 million re-tooling in order to install residential-quality power meters on each light that will allow city officials to track the power usage for each street lamp. That delay, along with a delay in installing the lights from EPB, means that after Lepard delivers the last of the initial 6,100 lights by next week, there will be a pause in production while the city installs the final 2,000 streetlights.
Lepard's concern: no production, no workers.
But the city has little flexibility in how it makes its decision, said Jeff Cannon, chief innovation officer for the Berke administration.
After the lights are installed by the end of 2013, and then after a month of evaluation, then will the city be ready to judge the success of Lepard's LEDs, Cannon said.
"I want a good month to evaluate, and that will start as soon as they're all delivered and installed," Cannon said.
Cannon, who has been a proponent of the energy-efficient lights "since I saw the first light bulb from China," is a fan of the project, he said. Cannon formerly worked at the environmental advocacy group Green Spaces, where he was a proponent of several sustainable initiatives. But because the council mandated an official evaluation, Cannon must be prepared to formally present data and analysis in front of the council before the project moves forward, he said.
"There's the cost of the lights, the cost of the installation, there's the cost of the existing facilities, and then comparing that to the savings that these lights are producing," Cannon said.
Lepard wishes the city's thumbs-up will come sooner rather than later. He's already gathered data that he can share with the city, and hopes the delays won't put him out of business.
"We can show them the savings on the 4,000 lights that are already installed right now," Lepard said, motioning to a Google Maps-format control panel that allows officials to lasso specific lights and adjust their behavior on the fly.
Using Lepard's new technology, a streetlight with an air quality sensor can detect meth lab emissions, notify the police and then dim itself in preparation for police entry into the building. On the analytics panel, anyone with the proper authentication can look at the exact power usage for any LED light on the grid, and compare that to the prior year.
Today, those figures show that with 4,000 lights already installed, the city saved 20 percent on its September power bill from the prior year, Lepard said. When the company has finished delivering all 26,500 streetlights, Lepard calculates that Chattanooga will save 65 percent on its power bill, and more than 70 percent on maintenance for the lights, which come with a eight-year warranty and last for 15 years.
And thanks to his latest patent, those lights will do more than just dim and strobe, he said. At the same cost of his current lights, the new design could open up the city's light grid to a host of technical innovation, allowing Chattanooga to make money selling space to private companies.
"If Mayor Berke wants to expand the Wi-Fi, he'll own the lights that can host it," Lepard said. "If he wants to put more cameras in for security, he owns the lights that can host it."
In the meantime, Global Green Lighting is working on a project to install thousands of its lights at the University of Alabama over the next three years, and pursuing plans to license its new smart lighting patent to other companies across the country. It's enough to keep a few people working, but nothing like his original $18 million he hoped to secure for the Chattanooga lighting project.
"We want to get out and sell the package to the cities, but at the same time, we recognize that cities have longstanding relationships with other vendors, and we'll work with them to adapt lighting to other vendors," he said. ""We've got 15 years to make money off this concept. I don't think we can replace all 92 million lights in the United States on our own."
Contact Ellis Smith at email@example.com or at 757-6315.