Switching to energy-saving light bulbs can have a beneficial effect on home electricity bills, but what if you were responsible for an entire city’s light output?
Norma Isahakian is the new executive director for LA’s Bureau of Street Lighting, where she oversees a budget of more than $65 million. We met up with her at the city’s streetlight museum (open by appointment) to find out how she’s gearing up her engineers to become crack data scientists, and turning 220,000 street lights into “smart poles” with sensors, solar panels, cameras, and communication monitoring nodes in preparation for the 2028 Summer Olympics.
Firstly, can you outline your role here at the City of LA?
As the executive director for the Bureau of Street lighting, I’m responsible for the entire system, including maintenance and rollout of new initiatives, of over 220,000 street lamps, with a staff of 300 employees, including 70 engineers.
And you’re an engineer yourself?
Yes, I graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a BS in Electrical Engineering and have a Professional Engineering License in the State of California. I’ve been with the city for 29 years. The majority of that has been with Street Lighting.
Obviously this was before your time, but when did street lamps first come to LA?
The first 43 gas lamps were installed in 1867 in downtown Los Angeles, followed by the first electric lamps, the 250-foot towers, in 1882, when electricity became available to everyone. But not everybody liked them so, in 1905, they came with the first incandescent ornamental systems on Broadway, and the Bureau of Street Lighting was established in 1925, but was part of a larger City division for a while. In 1936, when the Hoover Dam was established and brought more electricity to the USA, street lighting became more widespread. In 1950s there was a big development push in LA, and that’s when streetlights were put everywhere.
There are so many designs of classic LA street lamps—from the Art Deco era forward—preserved, not just here in the museum but outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the Urban Light installation by artist Chris Burden.
Even today we have 400 different designs in the city. And we’re currently planning the design of the smart street lighting concepts for the 2028 Summer Olympics.
Before we get to the Olympics project, trace the evolution of LA smart street lighting for us.
It starts really with our conversion to LED. Our energy bills were $16 million, and we heard there was an increase coming so we knew we had to do something. At the time, a lot of cities were very reluctant to look at LEDs because they weren’t quite there yet. But the City of LA got involved with industry, working with them to push the engineering and design, improving through R&D and we’re getting there, there’s been enormous changes in the style and efficiency of LEDs to date. We’ve now replaced over 180,000 street lights.
These are so much more than just street lights now, right?
Yes, Los Angeles is moving towards a whole Smart Connected City plan and, as part of that, we’re changing how we work. We started off by transitioning to a variety of “Smart” solutions with several vendors, starting with Philips’ Smart Pole initiative, which has communication nodes built in, providing 4G LTE wireless technology. There are also many other types on the table right now, including remote monitoring nodes (maintenance, gas/electricity company), solar panels, EV charging, connected security cameras, air quality meters and other sensors that help us gather data to improve our services. I’ve assembled a Smart City team here at the Bureau and we’ve got many ideas under review, including one from ENE-HUB in Australia, which produces a smart pole with not just EV charging for vehicles but also USB outlets and Wi-Fi connectivity too.
A savvy financial play too?
Right. The whole idea was to get the communication attachment inside the pole to offset the cost. That worked out well. Next we’re looking at our solar panels. We’ve installed about 750 of them so far and they are all tied to the power grid.
You’re selling sunshine captured by street lights during the day to the power grid by night?
Exactly. It was a pilot project that we put in place and it’s working really well, generating real electricity. We have a lot of sun here in California so we’ll be expanding that program.
In business terms, does that mean the Bureau of Street Lighting just became not just cash generating but a cash positive business?
My job involves not just providing lighting for the city but ensuring that the assessment fund that pays for the operations and maintenance is financially sound. These new programs not only provide needed programs for the residents of this city but yes, give the Bureau the ability to capture all costs and stabilize the assessment fund to prepare for future endeavors.
Always a delicate subject, but can you talk about the “eyes in the skies” security cameras. Are these linked back to the LAPD control room?
Remote monitoring is an important aspect of making a city safer, which is the city’s main function for cameras at this point. Nevertheless, the Bureau is testing future uses for cameras including tracking footfall to predict the flow of people coming into and out of an area, and also to address the real issue of copper wire theft.
People are nicking the copper twisted pairs from the street lighting system?
We’ve had a copper wire theft problem in this city for the last 10 years and now with a real homeless problem in [downtown LA], people are stealing power and copper to sell it and make some money.
You mentioned sensors that track data. Are you setting up a new data science team or working with the Mayor’s office?
We are working with the city’s team, but, and this was important to me, I wanted to re-educate our existing engineering team in a smart city approach so they’re all becoming hybrid data scientists and engineers now. I’ve charged them with finding out what data we can bring in, how we can use it, and what it means as part of the larger picture of LA as a smart city.
Can you give us a sneak peek of your smart city lighting plans for the 2028 Summer Olympics?
We’ve already started having meetings about the Olympics, but it’s early days. One of the things I can say is that my Bureau is collaborating with the Department of Cultural Affairs to come up with a “signature” Olympic-specific smart pole design. This will contain remote monitoring cameras and sensors to contribute to safety for everyone coming to LA; sensors for people flow so we can increase and decrease the levels of light around Olympic venues; digital banners for information on the fly; Wi-Fi connectivity; USB chargers; EV chargers, and more. In fact we’re planning a hackathon for municipal data geeks to join us in brainstorming new ideas and use cases, so we can connect with the community.
LA has become part of the global Smart City movement
Definitely. This city is great with so many smaller communities and a thirst for keeping on the data edge of technology, which include our streetlights. We are looking to collaborate with other cities through various industry conferences to share our vision and learn best practices. The Olympics will be a big showcase for us and we’re hoping to ensure that our streetlights are ready to be in the middle of this smart city wave.
Invite PCMag to your pre-Olympics street lighting concepting hackathon. We’ve got ideas.
You’re on the list.