LEDs Ought to be Lighting the Way

Holly Wilde

Holly Wilde

How many cities does it take for western utilities to change a light bulb?

Federal Department of Energy research shows that light-emitting diode streetlights—called LEDs—can reduce energy use by 12 percent when used in place of conventional high pressure sodium lighting above high-speed roads. LEDs also can save 58 percent on residential streets, and up to an impressive 70 percent when used at parking lots.

Yet in Montana, utility attorneys opposed then-Billings Mayor Ron Tussing’s 2009 petition before the Montana Public Service Commission that would have required conversion to the more efficient technology. The utility attorneys’ claim: “LED streetlights do not yet have market acceptance.”

Unfortunately, Montana’s utilities are out of touch with a growing movement. Throughout the world, 831 local governments in 50 countries have installed LED streetlights or will install them this year. In the US, they are used in 49 states.

Los Angeles leads the way; it has installed 48,356 LED during the last 18 months, reducing energy use by 58% on those streets and saving the city $1.76 million/year. LA will complete installation of 92,000 more LEDs by 2015.

New poles topped with LED luminaires line Polson, Montana’s main street. Additionally, the U.S. border with Canada at Scobey and Wildhorse, Montana is protected by the superior color rendering LED roadway lighting provides.

Other western examples abound. In Anchorage, Alaska, tests showed that drivers could distinguish objects more than twice as far away on roads lit by 165-watt LEDs than on roads lit with traditional 250-watt high-pressure sodium fixtures. Seattle, Washington’s City Light utility did extensive testing of LED and induction luminaires and then decided to replace 50,000 old lights with LEDs. Last year, Seattle changed out 5,000 lights saving the city $275,000 a year.

Clearly, LED streetlights do have market acceptance.

However, apparently these examples are still not enough for NorthWestern Energy and Montana Dakota Utilities. They have not included LED streetlights in their energy conservation rebate programs. Contrast that with the robust rebates of $50 to $200 per luminaire for LED roadway lights offered by Pacific Gas & Electric in California.

After it installed 269 LED streetlights, Foster City, California received a $33,825 rebate from PG&E. In addition to the rebates, the LEDs were funded by a $157,000 federal economic stimulus grant. Because it doesn’t have to repay the grant or rebate, Foster City will net $19,483 in first year avoided maintenance and energy cost savings. Even if Foster City had to pay for the LEDs themselves, the savings would still defray the costs within eight years of installation. That’s well within the projected 30-plus-year lifespan of many LEDs; it’s a lifespan up to 8 times longer than that of the conventional streetlights they replace. By converting to the longer-lasting LEDs, other communities could be saving money and energy too.

NorthWestern’s refusal to allow LEDs on its poles effectively prevents many Montana towns from using available federal stimulus money to transition to energy efficient streetlights. Consumers have already completely paid for about 85 percent of NorthWestern’s poles. Yet, contrary to federal antitrust law, NorthWestern contends that its consumers have no right to access those poles.

How do we pay for LEDs? We pay for them by cutting energy cost by 50% and by reducing maintenance costs because LEDs need replacing 8 times less often than high pressure sodium lights. In addition, the Public Service Commission could divert $2.1 million/year in unjustified overcharges that consumers already pay to NorthWestern Energy. Diverting the overcharges will cover the cost of the newer technology. Thus, in many lighting districts the transition can take place without increasing the street lighting charge that shows up on consumers’ property tax bills.

There is also a problem in getting some utilities to bill for LEDs accurately. Because utilities know how much energy a light will use at night, they usually impose unmetered street lighting tariffs based on light wattage and hours of on time, instead of bills based on metered energy use. But once LEDs are installed, energy use declines immediately. Therefore, the bills need to reflect the unmetered cost savings to towns. Montana’s Public Service Commission has declined to make that obvious switch, though in Michigan, all utilities are being required to establish unmetered LED rates.

If all of the 52.6 million U.S. roadway lights were switched to energy efficient LEDs, the savings would equal the total electricity consumed each year in more than 1.5 million homes. It’s time to switch. For more ideas on how, visit us online at aeromt.org. I’m Helena, Montana native Holly Wilde for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been building sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974.

This commentary aired on Montana Public Radio on June 23, 2011

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