Switching on: Installing LED streetlights to save Pennsylvania taxpayers money

Edgeworth manager Marty McDaniel calls his little city along the Ohio River a “one-horse town.”

“But we do have three traffic lights,” he said.

And about three years ago, Edgeworth switched the bulbs in those lights from incandescent to light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. The move has saved the borough more than 60 percent of its cost to operate the lights, or about $200 each month, by reducing both the cost of the electricity used and the necessary maintenance.

That has Mr. McDaniel looking up. Literally.

More than 200 streetlights dot Edgeworth’s borough limits, and he wants to replace their lamps with LED bulbs, too.

Doing so will require getting utility companies on board, and likely tinkering with the systems for paying them, but there are signs that could finally be happening. Chief among them: In its most recent rate case with Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission, Duquesne Light proposed setting its first ever tariff for LED streetlights and has privately committed to converting 1,500 streetlights each year in its service area.

Pittsburgh, and other cities that own their streetlights, already have started installing LEDs in place of high-pressure sodium, metal halide or mercury vapor lamps.

“These municipalities that own the assets are making these decisions,” said Evan Endres, the energy center project coordinator for Penn Future, an environmental advocacy group based in Harrisburg. “It’s a no-brainer.”

But most communities, like Edgeworth, don’t own their lights. Instead, they belong to the electric utility, with the communities paying a tariff to the utility for electricity, distribution and maintenance.

Those are the municipalities pleading with their electric companies to make the change to LEDs.


Lights and dollars

Though street light fixtures are so ubiquitous they blend into an urban environment, they aren’t as easy to ignore on a budget spreadsheet. Outdoor public lighting systems can account for 40 percent of a city’s electricity use, according to a 2011 Carnegie Mellon University study.

Mr. McDaniel said Edgeworth pays Duquesne Light about $35,000 each year for its streetlights.

The high costs have forced some cities to take unconventional measures.

Baldwin Borough was paying Duquesne Light $300,000 annually for its 1,400 streetlights. The borough asked Duquesne Light to remove 350 streetlights about two years ago, a decision that saved Baldwin about $65,000 annually, although the borough paid Duquesne Light about $50,000 for the removal.

After the borough announced its intentions, manager John Barrett started fielding calls from a variety of vendors suggesting Baldwin install LED bulbs to save more money.

“We’ve been going down that road for quite a while,” he said. “To Duquesne Light’s credit, they’ve worked with local communities.”

Mr. Barrett brought the issue to the Congress of Neighboring Communities, known as Connect, an organization that promotes collaboration among Pittsburgh and the municipalities it borders.

“This is a huge issue,” said Connect executive director Kathy Risko. “It’s crazy to think you have this technology and you can’t use it yet.”

In the past few years, Pittsburgh has installed LED fixtures in about 4,000 of its 40,000 streetlights.

Already, the fixtures are saving more than anticipated — $140,000 annually on maintenance alone, said Ben Carlise, an operations manager in Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works. Energy consumption in those fixtures has been reduced by 50 percent, said Jim Sloss, assistant director on the city’s Department of Innovation.

Initially, the city expected a full conversion to LED streetlights would cut $1.7 million off its annual $4.2 million tab to keep the streets lit. The early returns suggest the savings could be even greater.

Pittsburgh is now trying to lure Grah Lighting, a European LED manufacturer, to set up U.S. headquarters and a manufacturing plant in the area, a move that would make it easier for the city to retrofit its remaining 36,000 lights.


Calculating the costs

High-pressure sodium, metal halide or mercury vapor streetlights compose more than two-thirds all streetlights in the United States.

The traditional lights are gas discharge lamps, which require heat to generate light. The more efficient LEDs are semiconductors that generate light when an electrical current passes through.

While LED bulbs are more efficient, they are more expensive. Average costs range from $200 to $300, while traditional bulbs cost between $50 and $100.

FirstEnergy Corp., parent company of local utility West Penn Power, tells interested municipalities that its LED bulbs would cost seven times as much as traditional bulbs, said spokesman Todd Meyers.

But the average lifespan of an LED bulb is about 55,000 hours, and even then it doesn’t burn out — the intensity dims and color fades. Traditional bulbs last about 24,000 hours before they need to be replaced.

A Carnegie Mellon University study, conducted three years ago when the city of Pittsburgh explored LED streetlight conversion in earnest, estimated that LEDs require anywhere between 50 percent and 90 percent less energy to operate. So even with the upfront costs considered, LED streetlights can offer anywhere between 40 percent and 70 percent savings, depending on wattage.

Electric companies aren’t as motivated as their consumers to switch.

The companies charge municipalities a tariff for each streetlight — meaning they charge a flat fee per light, based on estimated usage, instead of metering each light and charging for actual electricity use.

Of the 11 electric utilities in Pennsylvania, only three have introduced a tariff for LED streetlighting.

When Duquesne Light introduced its tariff plan last August, it proposed charging more for LED bulbs than similar high-pressure sodium or mercury vapor bulbs.

“That didn’t ring true to us with our understanding of the technology,” said Penn Future’s Mr. Endres, who is based in Pittsburgh. “That was the ground on which we intervened.”

At the urging of Connect, which had considered hiring an environmental law attorney to fight the higher tariff, Penn Future challenged Duquesne Light’s rate case.

Eventually, the utility agreed to a settlement, Mr. Endres said, which includes a tariff reduction for LEDs that makes it cheaper than high-pressure sodium and mercury vapor streetlights, as well as a pilot program for streetlight conversions. The settlement is pending the finalization of Duquesne Light’s rate case.

Duquesne Light spokesman Joey Vallarian said the company cannot comment because the rate case is ongoing.

“Some credit goes to Duquesne Light for putting that out there and being on the forefront,” Mr. Endres said. “They took the first step. We challenged some of the particulars of that, but they deserve credit for taking that first step.”


Testing the market

If tariffs end up lower for LED fixtures, it may mean lower revenues for utilities. But their margins might improve. While most people predict a 40 to 70 percent savings for LED streetlights, the tariff proposed by Duquesne Light is less than 20 percent lower than traditional streetlights.

FirstEnergy plans to start its own pilot program for streetlight conversion in the next couple months, Mr. Meyers said. The pilot program will be in Ohio, and there is no timetable to extend that program to its Pennsylvania customers.

When Duquesne Light officially announces its pilot program, several towns hope to be the guinea pigs.

“If you need a pilot community, we’re certainly raising our hands saying you can gladly come to Baldwin,” Mr. Barrett said.

He’ll have some competition from Edgeworth, though Mr. McDaniel is not too optimistic about his town’s chances. At the rate things are going, he said, he’ll probably be “looking down” when Edgeworth finally gets LED bulbs in its streetlights.

“We’re just small potatoes down here,” he said. “I’m just trying to save $20,000 a year so I can buy road salt.”

Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969. Twitter: @msanserino.

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