LEDs ought to be leading the way

  • Russ Doty

  • Holly Wilde


How many cities does it take for Western utilities to change a light bulb?

Federal Department of Energy research shows that light-emitting diode streetlights -- called LEDs by just about everybody -- can reduce energy use by 12 percent when used in place of conventional high-pressure sodium lighting above high-speed roads. LEDs also can save up to 50 percent on residential streets, and up to an impressive 70 percent when used at parking lots. Yet in Montana, utility attorneys opposed then-Billings Mayor Ron Tussing's 2009 petition before the Montana Public Service Commission that would have required conversion to the more efficient technology.

The utility attorneys' claim: "LED streetlights do not yet have market acceptance."

Unfortunately, Montana's utilities are out of touch with a growing movement.  Throughout the world, 774 local governments in 47 countries have installed LED streetlights. In this country, they are used in 49 states.

Los Angeles leads the way; it installed 30,000 LED streetlights in 2010, and will complete installing 110,000 more by 2015. New poles topped with LED luminaires line the main street in Polson, Mont. Additionally, the U.S. border with two towns in Montana is protected by the superior color rendering that LED roadway lighting provides.

Other Western examples abound. In Anchorage, Alaska, tests showed that drivers could distinguish objects more than twice as far away on roads lit by 165-watt LEDs than on roads lit with traditional 250-watt high-pressure sodium fixtures. Seattle's City Light utility did extensive testing of LED and induction luminaires before deciding to replace 50,000 old lights with LEDs, which will save $2.4 million when complete. Last year, 5,000 were changed out.

Clearly, LED streetlights do have market acceptance. The following states can boast of towns having installed them: Oregon (two), Idaho (three), Wyoming (four), New Mexico (four), Arizona (five), Montana (five), Colorado (nine), Alaska (11), Washington (14), Utah (19), and California (98).

Apparently, that's still not enough for NorthWestern Energy in Montana and several other utilities in the region. Many have not included LED streetlights in their energy conservation rebate programs. Contrast that with the robust rebates of $50 to $200 per luminaire for LED roadway lights offered by Pacific Gas & Electric in California.

After it installed 269 LED streetlights, Foster City, Calif., received a $33,825 rebate from PG&E. In addition to the rebates, the LEDs were funded by a $157,000 federal economic stimulus grant. Because it doesn't have to repay the grant or rebate, Foster City will net $19,483 in first-year avoided maintenance and energy cost savings. If Foster City had to pay for the LEDs themselves, the savings would still defray the costs within eight years of installation. That's well within the projected 12-to-20-plus-year lifespan of the LEDs; it's a lifespan three to five times longer than that of the conventional streetlights they replace. By converting to the longer-lasting LEDs other communities could be saving money and energy, too.

Tri-State, the huge electric generation and transmission supplier for parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana, began its LED use by retrofitting luminaires on 34 of its Denver parking lot poles. Since then, its Ouray, Colo., customer, San Miguel Power, has brightened its streets and become one of at least seven all-LED towns in America.

Colorado's Xcel Energy, however, is not as progressive as Tri-State. By dragging its feet, Xcel risks litigation to require LED adoption. In Montana, NorthWestern utility has been sued by Paul Williamson, former University of Montana Dean of Technology, and others. They want to force the utility to allow use of its poles for more efficient lights.

NorthWestern's refusal to allow LEDs on its poles effectively prevents many Montana towns from using available federal stimulus money to transition to energy-efficient streetlights. Consumers have already completely paid the installation costs for about 85 percent of NorthWestern's poles. Yet NorthWestern contends that its consumers have no right to access those poles. Williamson's group maintains that current antitrust law indicates otherwise.

There is also a problem in getting some utilities to bill for LEDs accurately. Because utilities know how much energy a light will use at night, they usually impose unmetered street lighting tariffs instead of bills based on metered energy use. But once LEDs are installed, energy use declines immediately. Therefore, the bills need to reflect the cost savings to towns. Montana's Public Service Commission has declined to make that obvious switch, though in Michigan, all utilities are being required to establish unmetered LED rates.

If all of the 52.6 million U.S. roadway lights were switched to energy efficient LEDs, the savings would equal the total electricity consumed each year in more than 1.5 million homes. It's time to switch. For more ideas on how, check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lait4-aTypg.

Russ Doty is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He heads New World WindPower LLC and is also an attorney specializing in renewable energy in Billings, Montana. Holly Wilde is a writer and educator in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Monte Riggs
Monte Riggs
Apr 07, 2011 10:06 AM
Although the federal government has been promoting the use of LED sources in street lights as well as other luminaires, LED source fixtures have NOT achieved energy efficiency higher than any other light source other than household incandescent lamps. LEDs may at some point in the future provide us with true energy savings but no fixture currently on the market using LED as a source can compete with fluorescent or HID light sources for energy efficiency.

When clients ask what the annual maintenance cost of LED fixtures will be, we typically tell them the full fixture cost amortized over the life of the source or drivers. Since the front end cost of the fixtures is high, that usually is the end of the conversation. This is not a technology for which the components are readily available. If the fixtures are serviceable at all, the replacement parts usually must be ordered from the fixture manufacturer. Given the speed with which the technology is changing, what's on the market in 6 months will be significantly different from what you buy today.

The idea that any LED product has a life span of 12-20 years is complete science fiction or wishful thinking. If any manufacturer is claiming that at this point, ask them to give you a warranty of that length. The longest warranty I’ve seen from any reputable manufacturer recently has been 5 years. Usually is no more than 2 years. A lot of LED products were promoted as 100,000 hours lamp life as recently as 4 or 5 years ago. I don’t think anyone is claiming that today. Most of us have learned that lesson the hard way.

LED fixtures have come a long way since we started using them a few years ago. The color is improved and the efficacy is improving all the time. The promises of lamp life are much more realistic. In street lighting, there are still many problems with glare and many people find the fixtures harsh and unpleasant. They still have a long way to go.

Monte Riggs
HCN subscriber, Lighting Design Consultant
Dec 15, 2011 02:28 PM
Monte: I missed your comment earlier. I've not been back to this site for a long time. When you take into account the full fixture for street and parking lot or parking garage lighting, LED beats other HID and florescent alternatives. The leading manufacturers have been around for quite a while and while component parts are not often needed, they would not be hard to come by. There are market changes. However, that shouldn't prevent customers from starting to reduce maintenance costs and save energy and money now while providing better light.
     The BetaLED fixture, a leader in the field at the time of your comment, claimed in excess of 100,000 hours of operation. In the US there is now a standard for extrapolating from depreciation data the life of a luminaire. That standard was taken into account by Beta and presumably others in estimating luminaire life. Four to five years ago I can't recall that anyone was claiming 100,000 year life. 50,000 was about it.
     In door-to-door polls taken where LED street lights have been implemented, most folks find the light pleasing. In Seattle, the complaints have been addressed so that some folks objecting have changed their minds after siting adjustments were made. Manufacturers have moved away from light in the 5000 K range in many applications to the 4300K range.
    Your clients might find it helpful to join the municipal solid state lighting consortium. Its free and they can profit from the positive experience of hundreds of cities that have adopted LEDs.