Switching streetlights to efficient LEDs takes more than changing a light bulb

06/01/2014 9:48 PM

06/01/2014 9:48 PM

LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, use less than half the electricity of old-fashioned streetlights, and they require less maintenance, too.

Less juice to the pole means less pollution going from the power plant into the atmosphere. The cost savings are expected to pay for the more-expensive LEDs long before they fail.

So why haven’t cities all over the metro area converted?

Turns out it’s a complicated matter, and despite federal stimulus funding and a pilot project coordinated by the Mid-America Regional Council, Independence is the on only metro-area city that has fully converted to LEDs, along with a relative handful of light poles in other cities.

For cities that don’t own their own streetlights, there has been little cost saving.

Gladstone, for example, owns a few of its streetlights, but rents most of them from KCP&L. It participated in the Smart Lights program, replacing about 150 city-owned streetlights with LEDs.

Gladstone participated in a public-outreach effort led by MARC, and planning specialist Chris Helmer said most residents seem to like the new lights. But even with the pilot tariff, there has been little, if any, cost saving, Helmer said.

“There has got to be a starting point for a regional discussion with KCP&L,” Helmer said.

KCP&L’s David Sutphin, manager of its Customer Solutions Group, noted that streetlight tariffs have three components: fixture, maintenance costs and energy usage.

“We were trying to use this (pilot project) as a development tool,” Sutphin said. “There wasn’t much change from the previous tariff. We didn’t have a rate for LEDs to create a tariff … We’re still trying to work out the wattage savings.”

There are other cost factors, too, he noted.

“Rates depend on the type and height of the pole, the light-bracket arm, the different wattage,” he said. “It all figures into the leased cost.”

Sutphin said KCP&L is “still trying to understand what an LED tariff should begoing forward.”

He noted that LED technology is still changing, too.

“Once we get that down, we will build a case and sit down with the commissioners” to establish a permanent rate structure for LEDs, he said.

Some cities aren’t waiting for a permanent LED tariff to try to achieve savings in money and energy and to reduce air pollution. Roeland Park City Administrator Aaron Otto has been working on a plan to buy the streetlights in his city from KCP&L.

“Once the system is paid off, we should see decent savings,” Otto said.

Kansas City took over its streetlight system from KCP&L and Aquila in 1997. Then it spent $110 million to double the number of poles, bringing the total to about 80,000. Today Mahmoud Hadjian manages more than 90,000 streetlights for the Public Works department.

And while the city has experimented with some small LED installations, “I don’t think folks at the top level have become real serious because of the initial costs,” Hadjian said.

Hadjian said Kansas City’s commitment to national lighting standards also complicates any potential move to LEDs, which, although they provide brighter light, don’t spread it as far as older bulbs do.

Still, Hadjian has researched the subject and sees advantages to LED lights.

“It’s a tricky situation, but it can be done,” he said.

Pat McNamara, maintenance supervisor in Kansas City’s Parks and Recreation Department, maintains about 7,000 light fixtures in parks and along boulevards, and is changing to LEDs as fast as his budget will allow.

Several of the city’s most prominent fountains are now lit with LEDs.

“The reduction in energy is so huge today,” McNamara said. “It really needs to be done.”

Independence held a ceremony this spring to mark the complete conversion of its 11,400 streetlights from high-pressure sodium and mercury-vapor bulbs to banks of LEDs.

Independence was not part of the MARC-led pilot program, however. Rather, a concerned citizen, former mayoral candidate John Pennell, pushed for the change. City leaders responded, allocating about $4 million to make the changeover.

They expect to make that money back in less than 10 years through lower energy and maintenance costs, while the new lights could last as long as 25 years.

Independence has one other distinguishing factor that greased the skids for its lighting makeover: the city’s own utility, Independence Power & Light, controls the streetlight system.

The two Kansas Citys and Overland Park own their streetlights, and each city has replaced a small number of older bulbs with LEDs. But most smaller metro cities pay rental fees for each streetlight to a utility such as KCP&L.

The fees, called tariffs, are based on their costs of operation and are subject to approval by the public service commissions in Missouri and Kansas.

KCP&L had to ask the commissions for a special tariff just to participate in the MARC-led LED pilot project, which ran from 2010 to 2013. As part of the project, $4 million in federal stimulus funds paid for 5,700 streetlights in 25 smaller metro cities to be converted to LED fixtures, or to another high-efficiency source called induction lights.

According to a news release MARC issued when the “Smart Lights” program concluded in December, it “has the potential to transform the metro area’s streetlight market.”

But it has yet to do so.

MARC said that participating cities were pleased with the performance of the new streetlights, and that data collected during the grant period shows a significant energy savings.

For cities like Harrisonville, which owns its streetlights, the new lights bring immediate savings.

“Our city has seen a marked cost reduction since the installation of our LED streetlights, and our streets are brighter and safer as well,” said city administrator Keith Moody.

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