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Going Green by Using LED lights on the Streets

During an evening stroll on well lighted street, power plants may not come into your mind but power plants certainly provide much of the world’s nightly abundance of electric light. Along with the glow, it’s usually done by burning fossil fuel and adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

When cities do seek to decrease energy costs by converting old streetlights, they often run into rocky road ahead.  Clinton Climate Initiative reported that street lighting accounts for a shocking 160 Terawatt-hours of electricity worldwide each year. That is more than the annual output of forty 500-MW power plants.

In some areas, street lights command upwards of two-thirds of municipal electricity spending. Although in accounts less than one percent of all electricity in United States and about 1.3 percent in European Union, it still comes a large cost for cities.

In these tough economic times, municipalities started to pull the plug on inefficient lamps in favor of long-lasting and highly efficient Light-Emitting-Diode (LED) technology. So as in United States, lots of these projects have been supported by economic stimulus block grants for energy efficiency and conservation projects.

According to United States Department of Energy, LED’s could help communities save more than $750 million in energy costs per year. It also offers benefits; one is a more uniform light distribution. Now, LED is already lighting streets from Torraca, Italy to Toronto, Canada as well as from Tianjin, China to Sydney, Australia. But, in reality, the Clinton Climate Initiative report remarks “negligible” adoption of new lighting technologies.

Not Just Screwing in a New Light Bulb

LED lights cost more up front than the current high-pressure sodium, mercury vapor, and metal halide lights. Long-term performance in real-world installations is also unproven because of the quickly changing technology. According to Ed Henderson, manager of community lighting for utility DTE Energy in Michigan, there are a lot of unknowns in terms of maintenance. LEDs can come in a variety of packages and there’s an obsolescence factor because they’re changing all the time just like cell phones and flat screen TVs.

Whereas replacing the traditional streetlights in DTE’s network is usually as simple as unscrewing a dead bulb and screwing in a new one. The more specialty installation or on-off installations, the more difficult maintenance becomes for a utility managing streetlights on a large scale.

Ann Arbor, Michigan, has worked to smooth over the kinks of LED streetlight installations over the past years. Reduced costs for energy and crucial maintenance over the working life of LED streetlights which expected to have a four to five year payback depending on factors like wattage, electricity rates and labor costs.

Michigan drew national attention with plans to become the first U.S city to convert all of its downtown streetlights to LED technology. The project was expected to lower the city’s public lighting energy use by half as well as cutting the costs by about $85,000 per year and save another $15,000 in annual electricity costs.

Two years later, since the lights aren’t metered and charges were based on estimates and on old technology, DTE is still billing Ann Arbor the old rates. Same issue stopped the LED streetlight project in nearby Jackson, Michigan and dropped plans to pursue the technology. Installing LED lights won’t cut electricity bills until Consumers Energy will create a new rate.

In contrast, the economic stimulus program called American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in Washington, D.C. granted $1 million to support the installation of LED for more than 1,000 streetlights this year and their streetlight utility bill will be based on the bulb wattage.

Low-Wattage Sticker Shock for Power Companies

Many streetlights in U.S. cities are owned by the local utility while municipality is paying for the electricity and operating costs. This is what causing complication for ambitious LED streetlight supporters because changing over to more efficient lights would therefore reduce the utility’s revenue.

Regulations in some US states decoupled utility profits from electricity sales, creating a method for utilities to make up for some of the revenue they would lose as electricity sales decline and sometimes offering incentives for efficiency programs.

Under the larger category for experimental lighting technology, DTE already charges Ann Arbor the rates based on LED streetlights expected energy use. But these only one-fifth of the savings and the rest come from reduced maintenance costs. Ann Arbor has about 1,400 LEDs out of 7,000 streetlights fixtures citywide and has an estimated saving of 350,000 KW hours per year.

Everyone is looking beyond the common benefits of greater efficiency and longer life. Now, Ann Arbor still spends about $1.5 million every year on streetlights but still proposing the new technology that would save the city money. They’re even expecting to double the streetlight’s energy savings by end of 2011 by installing 500 LED fixtures as replacements for high-wattage streetlights.


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