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.