The evolution of public lighting, from torches to smart services 

Public lighting has undergone a remarkable transformation over the centuries – and Europe has played a significant role in driving many of the most important advances in this field. 

The evolution of public lighting, from torches to smart services 

Street lighting accounts for 1-2% of electricity demand in the European Union. At the municipal level, however, street lighting is now responsible for up to 40-50% of public electricity consumption. 

Public lighting has undergone a remarkable transformation over the centuries. Its evolution has been driven by a variety of factors, including technological advances, changing social norms and cultural practices, and efforts to improve safety and reduce energy consumption. Europe has played a significant role in driving many of the most important advances in this field. 

From ancient times, the earliest forms of public lighting in Europe and worldwide were simple torches and oil lamps, which were portable and used primarily to light the streets and public spaces in larger or smaller settlements. These early forms of lighting were relatively crude and inefficient, and they provided only limited illumination.  

The first public street lighting in Europe was established in the 9th century in the Spanish city of Cordoba, where oil lamps were installed along the streets to provide illumination at night. In the Middle Ages, candles were also used, typically placed in lanterns along major thoroughfares. They provided a limited amount of light, primarily serving as markers to guide pedestrians and vehicles along the streets during the night. The candles were relatively expensive and not as widely accessible as they are today – their use for public illumination was often limited to more populated or affluent areas. In less developed or rural regions, other sources of light, such as torches or bonfires, were more common. 

In the early 19th century, gas lighting emerged as a major new technology for public lighting. The first gas streetlamps were installed in London in 1807, and soon spread to other cities across Europe. Gas lighting was much brighter and more efficient than earlier forms of lighting, and it quickly became a symbol of modernity and progress. However, gas lighting was also expensive and required significant infrastructure, including gas lines and storage facilities, which made it difficult to implement in smaller towns and rural areas. Today, there are still around 1,500 functioning gas-fuelled streetlamps in London. Keeping the nostalgic momentum, in the Polish city of Wroclaw you can still observe every day at sunset the lamplighter in his special attire, visiting one by one the 103 gas lamps on the Cathedral Island. 

Convent Garden, London, source: / Ostrów Tumski, Wrocław, source: 

The development of electricity in the late 19th century led to a new era of public lighting, as electric lamps and bulbs replaced gas and oil lamps in cities and towns across Europe. The first electric streetlights were installed in Paris in 1878, and in 1884 Timișoara became the first European city to implement electric street lighting with a direct current (DC) distribution system.  

By the early 20th century, electric lighting had become the standard for public lighting in most urban areas. Electric lighting was much brighter and more reliable than gas lighting, and it allowed for more flexible and efficient lighting schemes. The famous Parisian landmark, the Eiffel Tower, was originally illuminated by gas lamps when it was first built in 1889. But it was not until the 1980s that the tower was fitted with modern lighting technology, comprising 350 high-pressure sodium bulbs. 

In the mid-20th century, high-intensity discharge (HID) lighting emerged as the major new technology. HID lighting includes technologies such as mercury vapor, sodium vapor, and metal halide lamps, which produce very bright and efficient light. HID lighting was widely used for street lighting, stadium lighting, and other applications, and it helped to transform the nighttime urban landscape. However, HID lighting also had some significant drawbacks, including high energy consumption, poor color rendering, and a tendency to produce glare and light pollution. 

In recent years, LED lighting has emerged as the dominant technology. Since 2006, LED street lighting has been adopted gradually by cities across Europe and the globe. LED produces the same level of brightness as HID lighting, but it is highly energy-efficient, reducing energy consumption by up to 70% compared to traditional lighting technologies. LED lighting is also highly versatile, with the ability to produce a wide range of colors and lighting effects, and it can be easily controlled and programmed using smart city technologies.  

The best is yet to come! 

The widespread adoption of LED lighting in recent years has had a significant impact on energy consumption for street lighting. Many European cities have implemented ambitious plans to transition to energy-efficient LED lighting in public spaces and have been at the forefront of research into the use of lighting to enhance public safety and well-being. The city of Copenhagen is known for its innovative approach to public lighting. They have installed thousands of energy-efficient LED streetlights that can be controlled and dimmed remotely based on traffic patterns and other factors. The city has also experimented with using colored LED lighting to create unique and artistic lighting installations in public spaces. 

The global smart lighting market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 22.9% between 2022 and 2030, driven by increasing demand for energy-efficient and sustainable lighting solutions. In some cities, streetlights are being replaced with solar-powered versions to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions.  

Another important trend in the evolution of the street lighting market in Europe has been the rise of smart city technology. Public lighting infrastructure is suitable for a number of Smart City applications, offering possibility for additional revenue streams from different energy and non-energy services besides illumination. Many cities around the world are investing in “smart city” technologies for street lighting, with sensors, cameras, data analytics, and other advanced features integrated into lampposts to improve public safety, monitor air quality, and provide other services. A compilation of case studies can be found here, collected by the Smart EPC project.

A number of cities around the world have already tested EV charging technology integrated on lampposts. For example, in the city of London there are more than 6.000 EV chargers installed on lampposts while cities like Berlin and Dublin are also piloting this service.  

In conclusion, the evolution of public lighting in Europe has been driven by a combination of technological innovation, social and cultural factors, and a desire to improve safety and efficiency. From the earliest torches and oil lamps to the modern era of LED lighting and smart city technologies, public lighting has played a vital role in making our cities and towns safer, more accessible, and more livable.  

Looking into the future, it is clear that smart city technologies will continue to play a major role in shaping the evolution of public lighting, as we work to create more sustainable, efficient, and equitable urban environments. 

In this article you can read about the challenges in modernising public lighting in historical areas. If you want to keep up with the developments of smart services and EPCs, subscribe to the Smart EPC newsletter.