Germany's Bright Idea: Street Lighting on Demand

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Dial4Light street lights in Germany

Every night at 11 p.m. the village of Dörentrup in central Germany is thrown into total darkness. For the past few years, the village's cash-strapped local council has been switching off all the streetlights in the village each evening until 6 a.m. the following morning. In most places, a nightly blackout would provoke outrage as residents find themselves fumbling and stumbling their way home through the dark. But in Dörentrup, they have seen the light, with a new scheme that allows residents to turn on streetlights on demand — anytime, anywhere — using just their cell phones.

When Dörentrup's council started switching off the streetlights, Dieter Grote's wife would worry about their children coming home late at night in the pitch black. "My wife has all the good ideas," Grote, who runs an advertising agency, tells TIME. "I discussed the problem with her and we thought it must be possible to have the lights available on demand." Dieter got in touch with the local utility company Lemgo and together they came up with a solution: How about turning on the village lights with a simple telephone call? Lemgo developed a special modem and software to make it possible, and Dial4Light was born.

In the first project of its kind in Europe, the residents of Dörentrup can now switch on the lights on a specific street whenever they like. All they have to do is register for the scheme online and provide a phone number. Then each time anyone needs to see in the dark, they call the Dial4Light number, enter the six-digit code that corresponds to the stretch of road they want lit, and within seconds the lights are on. They'll stay on for around 15 minutes, enough time for someone to walk from one end of the average Dörentrup road to the other. "The scheme is easy for everyone to use," says Grote. "Elderly people can use a cash machine, so they can make a call to switch on the streetlights."

After a pilot project last year proved to be a big hit with the public, Dörentrup's council has decided to roll out the scheme for the whole village, home to 9,000 people. Utility company Lemgo says the scheme will cut down Dörentrup's carbon-dioxide emissions by around 12 tons each year compared with leaving the streetlights on all night. "We found out that on each stretch of road, people only switch on the lights up to three times each night," explains Frank Bräuer, project leader at Lemgo. "That's why this system works in villages or the outskirts of a town where residents don't need the lights burning all night." But Dial4Light won't work for everyone, he admits: "It wouldn't be suitable for a big city like New York or London, where there's a lot going on at night."

The mayor of Dörentrup, Friedrich Ehlert, sees the new project as win-win. After he was forced to turn off the village lights to help save money, he faced complaints from angry residents worried about their safety when making their way home in the dark in the dead of night. He still defends his decision to flip the switch — "If I watch TV at home, and then go into another room, I switch the lights off in the lounge; people shouldn't expect the streetlights to be on when they're not outside" — but says that any money saved will go toward building schools or sports facilities for the village. And although the council picks up the electricity bill every time anyone uses Dial4Light (locals only pay for the call), the scheme is still cheaper than running the streetlights through the night. "We're cutting electricity bills and we're doing something to help the environment," says Ehlert. "Everyone can do their bit."

Lemgo says there are plans to launch the scheme in five other countries and it has received requests for its new technology from all over the world, including Sweden, Britain, the U.S. and Dubai. With the recession biting into town-council coffers everywhere and growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions, letting residents light up the night only when they need to seems like a bright idea.