Converting streetlights to more efficient LED system is much more than changing a light bulb

05/27/2014 9:41 PM

05/28/2014 10:24 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. Despite federal stimulus funding and a pilot project coordinated by the Mid-America Regional Council, only one area city has fully converted to LEDs, along with a relative handful of light poles in other cities.

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 LEDs.

Independence was not part of the pilot program, however. A concerned citizen, former mayoral candidate John Pennell, pushed for the change.

City leaders, seeing the wisdom of the idea, responded, allocating about $4 million to make the change. 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 for its lighting makeover: It has its own utility company, Independence Power & Light, that controls the streetlight system.

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

The utilities charge the cities fees, known as tariffs, which are based on their costs of operation and are subject to approval by state utility regulators in Missouri and Kansas.

KCP&L had to ask the states for a special tariff just to participate in the MARC-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 MARC news release in December, it “has the potential to transform the metro area’s streetlight market.”

But it has yet to do so.

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

Gladstone participated in the Smart Lights program, replacing about 150 city-owned streetlights with LEDs. But even with the pilot tariff, there has been little, if any, reduction in costs, said Planning Specialist Chris Helmer.

“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 charged to cities 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.”

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 said he is working on a plan to buy the streetlights in his city from KCP&L. About half of the city’s roughly 600 streetlights were replaced with LEDs as part of the Smart Lights project.

Otto has solicited bids from companies to maintain the lights and to provide utility-line location services so that residents can dig safely if and when Roeland Park takes over the system.

If the City Council approves the plan and KCP&L accepts its offer, Otto said, Roeland Park could take over its streetlight system in late summer.

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

Overland Park is making the switch to LEDs gradually. The city completed the purchase of about 2,000 older streetlights from KCPL in 2013, making its entire 18,000-light system city owned.

Most of Overland Park’s streetlights are metered, meaning the city realizes energy cost savings from LED installations immediately, said Traffic Engineer Brian Shields.

“We started switching over in the last few years on certain projects,” Shields said. “We found one we liked … to use on thoroughfares. We haven’t found one that is meeting our standards for neighborhood residential streets.”

Olathe owns about 7,000 streetlights and leases about 6,000 from KCPL, according to Streetlight Supervisor Rusty Hunsacker. The city is talking to the utility about buying the lights it doesn’t already own, he said.

Olathe has been researching LED technology for the past six or seven years, Hunsacker said.

“Last fall we actually put LEDs on the pre-approved list for all new projects for arterials and collectors (streets),” he said. “We’ll swap out at least 200 this year, and we’re looking to do more in the future.”

There are variables in pole height and spacing, Hunsacker and other officials noted, that make it impossible to simply mandate that every high-pressure sodium light that burns out be replaced with an LED.

“The technology continues to improve,” Husacker said. “The disincentive is the up-front cost. But with longer maintenance cycles and lower energy costs, the dollars saved over time are pretty significant.”

Smart Lights

Twenty-five area communities took part in in the “Smart Lights for Smart Cities ” program coordinated by the Mid-America Regional Council. It was targeted at smaller comunities around the area.

The participants:

Kansas: Basehor, Edwardsville, Fairway, Gardner, Lansing, Merriam, Mission, Prairie Village, Roeland Park, Spring Hill, Tonganoxie, Westwood.

Missouri: Gladstone, Harrisonville, Kearney, Lawson, Liberty, North Kansas City, Oak Grove, Peculiar, Platte City, Pleasant Hill, Raymore, Raytown, Smithville.

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