Let there be light! Futuristic street lamps tap into the oldest energy source: the sun

Let there be light! Futuristic street lamps tap into the oldest energy source: the sun
by Jamie Doward
Sunday, 20 March 2016

Scotia Monopole streetlights at the Light + Building trade show in Frankfurt, Germany.

Not far from the House of Commons, a stone’s throw from Westminster bridge, two streetlamps will soon be erected.

Paid for by Transport for London, these are no ordinary lights. According to their manufacturer, they could play a major role in tackling Britain’s energy crisis.

The Monopoles, unveiled at a German trade fair last week, convert sunlight to streetlight via photovoltaic (PV) panels. The energy they generate can then be stored in a battery and used during the night to power the lamps. As a result, the “zero-emission streetlight” eliminates electricity costs. But not only do they generate enough energy to light themselves, they create a surplus which can be sold to the National Grid, potentially making millions of pounds for Britain’s local authorities, for which running streetlights costs an estimated £300m a year. Many councils are now dimming their streetlights or switching them off, raising fears of an increase in accidents and crime.

A survey of 141 of 150 councils found that 50 have switched off all their lamps, while 98 confirmed that they have dimmed at least some. According to Scotia, the company behind the new technology, the average local authority operates 33,000 street lights, whose energy usage equates to emitting 7,600 tons of carbon dioxide a year. A freedom of information request to Greenwich council in south-east London revealed that in 2010 it spent £925,810 operating 22,000 lights.

There are 7 million streetlights in the UK. Scotia claims that if they were all replaced with lamps equipped with solar technology they would generate more than 4 terrawatt hours of energy a year – half the output of Sizewell B nuclear power station. That would cut the UK’s CO2 output by more than 2m metric tons a year. “Instead of being a drain on the National Grid and a huge expense for local authorities, Monopoles turn streetlights into mini-power stations,” said Steven Scott, Scotia’s chief designer. “They’ve already proved to be hugely successful in our pilots in Copenhagen, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh and we anticipate demand will be high from around the world. A small Monopole can be erected by just two people, without the need for machinery, in under five minutes.”

Sceptics may point to Britain’s drab weather and ask whether the lamps will be much use in the dark winter months, but Scotia insists that the lamps can function even in the bleakest conditions. The pilot scheme by TfL is part of a wider drive to equip Britain’s infrastructure with energy-producing solar panels. Proponents of the technology believe many sites around the UK are ripe for development.

“With over 17,000 car parks in the UK, there is a great opportunity for this sector to reap the benefits of solar PV panels, particularly now with falling costs and technical advances that enhance performance outputs,” said Jonny Williams, director of the BRE National Solar Centre.

But some question whether the technology can compete against rival energy sources. The current low oil price is unlikely to stimulate demand for solar energy. And cash-strapped councils and governments may be wary about committing to a fledgling innovation that could be manufactured more cheaply by other companies in the future as economies of scale kick in.

Nevertheless, energy experts believe solar technology has an increasingly significant role to play. In 2014, the International Energy Agency issued two reports claiming that the sun could be the world’s largest source of electricity by 2050, ahead of fossil fuels, wind, hydro and nuclear. Energy Watch Group, an independent, non-profit global network of scientists and parliamentarians, suggests that, as the cost of PV panels continues to decline, it will stimulate growth in the number of installations of the technology worldwide. “At the same time more financial investors are turning their back on fossil and nuclear projects in favour of renewable energies,” the group argues.

Source: The Observer UK.