Bright Idea? Citizen-Controlled Street Lamps

07/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The German town of Dorentrup originally turned out the street lamps because it felt it couldn't afford to pay the electric bill. A frustrated citizen suggested that residents should have some way to turn on the lights when they needed to, and the county council in nearby Lemgo took his concerns seriously.

Now registered citizens can make a quick call or message with their mobile phones (called a "handy" in German) to a modem connected to software that can remotely control the on and off switch on streetlights. Turning on the lights requires the six-digit code from the area, but is said to take just a few seconds. The lights are also on a 15-minute meter.

This German Dial4Light system on on-call street lamps is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 tonnes annually. That's equivalent to 11 four-person households, according to the UK Guardian.

It also reduces light pollution.

After 18 months of piloting, Lemgo is now ready to launch Dial4Light to the rest of the world, as the council has made the system into a business idea, and says it has gotten interest from all over the globe.

In Dorentrup the cost of the phone call will turn on the lights for a quarter of an hour. In another German town, Rahden, getting an hour of street light will cost nearly $5.

While charging citizens for streetlamp use seems a bit twisted, it does help us all realize that electricity isn't free. On the downside, someone in need of lighting for safety probably won't have the time or ability to phone for light help.

Dial4Light says the system is really meant for low-use routes that seldom have any people around between midnight and dawn.

There are other innovations happening in street lighting -- LED lamps have lowered energy requirements in tests in Oslo and Stockholm. In Los Angeles, 140,000 street lamps will be retrofitted with LEDs. Solar-powered LED lamps called Solar Trees show promise on the streets of Vienna, and hybrid wind and solar lamps are working as far afield as Athens, the Canadian province of Ontario, and Aichi, Japan.

One intrepid tinkerer proposes piezoelectric controlled trigger switches that would light up the lamps or street lights right ahead on a roadway, so that even remote highways or seldom-traveled paths could have light when needed.

Putting together these more efficient and/or renewable-energy-driven street lighting with citizen-controlled switching seems like a great concept that with a bit of ingenuity could have lots of applications.