Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Cities shed light on streetlight energy use

By IAN OBERG
Capital News Service

LANSING — Municipalities throughout Michigan are focusing on street lighting to save money and reduce energy consumption.

In Jackson, for example, officials are waiting for a price quote for newer lighting systems. They know the cost of the equipment but not the hourly operating rate

In Lapeer, the amount of time streetlights are lit is being reduced in some areas.

And in Adrian, a city parking lot was upgraded to test the success of newer lighting systems.

In each case, however, the cost of switching to newer lighting systems is the main obstacle, officials say.

“The biggest problem with converting to more efficient lights is that the people selling us electricity haven’t given us a rate based on more efficient lighting concepts,” said Jackson City Manager Warren Renando. “We would like to convert to higher-efficiency lights, but in order to do that, what we need is to figure out the cost.”

Until Consumers Energy develops a new rate for lower-wattage technology like light-emitting diode (LED) streetlights, Renando said that the city won’t be converting its streetlights.

“We will go to the most efficient level of lighting that we possibly can, as quickly as we can, as soon as we figure out what the payback is,” said Renando. “It’s hard to figure out the energy savings when you don’t know the rate you’re going to be charged.”

Other communities have already taken steps to reduce their energy output and embrace newer, greener streetlight practices.

“We did a cityscape a number of years ago and switched the streetlights throughout the downtown area to high-pressure sodium vapor lamps,” said Adrian City Engineer Kristin Bauer. “I’d be interested in upgrading to LEDs, but we have been slow to do so because of the cost.”

Bauer said Adrian upgraded one of its municipal parking lots last year and installed LED lighting during the reconstruction. Additional light poles had to be purchased but the new system saves close to 1,000 watts every month compared to the previous setup.

Bauer said that she would like to convert the rest of the city streetlights to LEDs, but the initial cost of the conversion is the only barrier.

“I like it a lot, but it tends to be slightly cost-prohibitive, and we’re like every other city and squeezed for every penny,” said Bauer. “If I had some grants, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

The city of Lapeer has also tried different methods to save energy, and in turn, money.

“A number of years ago we did an intense citywide analysis of all of our facilities, and then we implemented the energy-saving steps that would save us money in an average three-to-five year payback,” said City Manager Dale Kerbyson. “The activities we do, like turning off streetlights in some areas at certain times, have reduced our energy costs.”

Kerbyson said that Lapeer had previously considered converting streetlights to LED technology, but refrained because the project was cost-prohibitive.

However, Kerbyson also said that Lapeer will revisit the question in the near future after learning that the cost for the necessary components has dropped drastically since it was last considered.

“We may be proposing to the city commission that they consider a street lighting millage, or we will ask the citizens to put it on the ballot to pull that out of our budget and get special funding for it,” said Kerbyson. “Right now, it’s just part of the everyday millage that the city charges, but we have a very low-capped millage because we have an income tax. We may ask for a mill or three-quarters of a mill to cover the cost of street lighting in the near future.”

In Mason, city staff will work with Consumers Energy on a streetlight inventory that will list the number and types of lights and poles, as well as how they are billed. That will allow for more accurate calculations of the cost.

Dennis Berkebile, Consumers Energy’s area manager for Southwest Michigan, said, “Even though the streetlight program says that the customers will have a share in the replacement cost, the corporation made the decision that they will make the replacements to mercury vapor lights at no cost to the local cities. It was a corporate decision to do that.”

The costs to citizens, as well as rising rates for electricity, are city officials’ main concerns and staff members are considering suggestions to reduce the hours that streetlights are used, as in Lapeer — as well as the possibility of removing all streetlights throughout the city.

Marty Colburn, the city administrator, argues that may not be as drastic as it seems.

“If you are doing something that is energy-saving, there’s basically a `no-harm’ clause to them,” Colburn said, referring to Consumers Energy, “which means there is not a direct correlation of best practices and it impacting your rates.

“We want everybody to do good practices. But ultimately, if we still do it and then they just charge us more because we’re using less so they can keep running their operation, what is the public good in that sense?” Colburn asked. “Yes, we may see some savings, but not a direct correlation to the use of the kilowatts versus a direct correlation to the constant savings, and that’s frustrating.”

It is unclear how removing all streetlights would affect the city and its residents.

“If they take the streetlights out of the city, that would certainly be a concern for me,” Mason resident Ingrid Nova said. “But, overall, I think it’s great that the city and Consumers Energy are taking the initiative to try to look toward the environment and think ahead to what would be best down the road.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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