Unley City Council: Seven Steps to Gold Standard for South Australian Smart Lighting

While street lighting in South Australia has had a slightly chequered past, the last few years has been nothing short of extraordinary,  where we've seen some major steps forward with the alignment of incentives between key stakeholders, projects delivered and smart lighting pilots underway.

The establishment of a Public Lighting Working Group in late 2018, chaired by the Local Government Association of South Australia (LGA) and attended by a diverse group of metropolitan and regional councils and the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure (DPTI) meet every month with key staff from SA Power Networks to flesh out key issues in a collaborative forum. The PLWG provides a representative group for Councils and DPTI to work with the LGA and SAPN on public lighting matters, build mutual understanding and trust between key stakeholders and discuss current issues associated with public lighting. It’s a world away from the challenges of the past. The LGA, SAPN and councils deserve all the congratulations they’re given as we all transition to a new regulatory environment from July 2020.

At the same time, there are now over 50,000 LEDs that have been installed throughout the state, including over 40,000 on council-managed roads, the rest on DPTI-managed roads. There are still around 180,000 to go so there’s no time to get complacent, but it has been a great start with the Cities of Onkaparinga, Mitcham, Charles Sturt, Holdfast Bay, Burnside and Campbelltown already completing projects over the last few years. Indeed, Campbelltown marked the installation of half a million LEDs in Australia*!

Plan Properly and Sharpen That Axe

As an ever-increasing number of councils start implementing LED projects and borrowing from lessons learned in other jurisdictions over the past decade, projects throughout the state are becoming a whole lot smoother.

Having already worked with all of the councils listed above, we’ve recently worked with the City of Unley in the project management of their 2,600 new LEDs and can safely say that we now have the “Gold Standard” for South Australian smart lighting projects.

We’re yet to see a project run as smoothly, and there some key learnings worth keeping in mind. To no one’s surprise… the key is careful planning and preparation. If you jump straight in without careful planning then get ready for cost and time blowouts, quality issues, ordering delays and logistical nightmares.

The Seven Steps to Gold Standard 

Here’s what Unley did. And what every council in South Australia – and indeed Australia – should do:

  1. Reduce risk by undertaking a detailed lighting design: This is a once-in-a-generation chance to improve lighting within your municipality so before you go and order a few thousand LEDs and get them installed it’s worth checking compliance to relevant standards, safety considerations, traffic control devices, extra lights, delamping, baffles, smart lighting applications, lighting around transport hubs or bike paths, and about a million other important considerations. Unley were the first in SA to do this properly, bringing key council stakeholders to the table – such as transport planners, community safety staff, strategic planning – to make sure they had input before the project started. 
  2. Work with other councils: Unley teamed up with neighbouring Campbelltown to reduce costs in the preparation stages. They even held a joint council briefing session in 2018 to flesh out all of the key issues and have all of the important questions (and some of the left-field ones!) answered. This meant Councillors were on board, especially when the business case was presented to them.
  3. Develop an independent business case and financial analysis: With all due respect to SAPN and some of the other consultants out there, you can’t undertake financial analysis based on one-year of potential savings and then multiple this by 20 years, which is the standard life of the new lights. In fact, be really careful of some of the rubbish analysis out there and get it independently reviewed, especially as the sectors moves onto major road lighting when the financial business case is more marginal. If you were trying to decide on whether to purchase a new Ford, Holden or Toyota, you wouldn’t go to Ford for independent advice. If you’re looking at which LED tariff to sign-up to, make sure you get some external advice :-) 
  4. Tap into national procurement programs and markets: Unley were the first council in South Australia to purchase directly from LED hardware providers resulting in massive savings on the capital costs. The purchasing decision was made late last year, and we’re talking savings in the order of 25-30% compared to what everyone else was paying. How did they do this? Unley tied their project into national programs and benchmarked every price offer they were provided. Result? Big financial savings to Council and ratepayers. 
  5. Undertake lighting audits during and post-project: Another first for Unley, they undertook independent audits by specialised street lighting experts throughout the project to make sure the project was being delivered as expected (see “lighting design” note above!), and hitting the time-cost-quality benchmarks. Audits should be undertaken at various stages of a changeover, not just at the end. Unley learned from the mistakes and lessons of the hundred or so projects delivered around Australia and built on them. Result? Project delivered on time and great communication between Council, SAPN, installers and other stakeholders to minimise delays and frustrations.
  6. Investigate smart lighting pilots: Through the detailed design process, Unley were able to find areas where they could trial smart lighting technology and decided on a project around the municipality's bike paths to try and ensure motorists, cyclists and pedestrians all benefit from increased light levels, dimming and potentially adaptive lighting. If you want to know more about this then come and hear Unley CEO Peter Tsokas present at the Smart Lighting Summit in late August 2019.
  7. Know which battles are worth fighting: Want to deliver the perfect smart lighting or LED bulk changeover? Well be prepared to be disappointed. There is no such thing as the perfect person, organisation, council or project! While the Unley project was probably as close you can get, there are always some roadblocks and incidents along the way. Unley knew which were the important issues and “non-negotiables” and when to give ground for the greater good, even if they had a good case around a particular issue – whether that be dealing with project stakeholders, residents or incidents.

In many ways this is the story of public lighting in Australia over the last decade. In areas where stakeholders understand how important this is, we see results. Or in the words of lighting pioneers from Charles Sturt and Ironbark a few years ago:

"there's a time for carrots and a time for sticks but at the end of the day nothing has been achieved without a collaborative approach. No projects. No benefits. It's hard to argue and collaborate at the same time in your own head so write a list of all the things you want to achieve and then note what requires collaboration and what requires dispute. There's a legitimate role for both but if you let argument rule the day you don't replace 2.3 million street lights throughout the country

For Unley, now that they’ve clearly demonstrated what a successful project on minor roads looks like, it’s an easy case for them to make the smart lighting transition for major roads. And with funding secured for this financial year, they’re on track to be on the first councils in Australia to complete this project. 

Gold Standard no less.

Who's Next?

Congratulations to Aaron, Peter, Julie (now at IPWEA) and John (now at Salisbury) and the Unley team. If you want more information on the seven steps or assistance in business cases, project management, checking your SAPN letter of offer, making sure your capital costs are being benchmarked, design, hand-holding, reducing risk, making sure project ticks the time-cost-quality triangle, or basically anything to do with your street lighting projects just contact Australia's leading experts

* If you're one of the 114 (and counting) councils that have already changed to LED then we're tracking you at the Australian LED Street Lighting Counter. If you think we may have missed you and you're not named here, let us know and we’ll add your lights to the counter.