Why LED streetlight conversion is a “zero-entry” point
There comes a point in every city’s life when it thinks to itself: it’s time for a change.
And since municipalities can’t buy convertibles or pick up parasailing, there’s one obvious starting point for transitioning into a so-called smart city- converting to smart LED streetlights.
It’s happening all across the country; Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. Memphis, Seattle, and Washington D.C. are just some of the metropolises (wow that’s a fun word) that have transitioned to LEDs or are in the process of doing so.
It’s a pain-in-the-butt process, but one that lends itself to quick dividends. A prompt return on investment, tangible energy savings, and increased public safety are among the benefits; and there’s no embarrassing starting point for the process, no matter how big your city is.
Where to begin?
“My first task was to figure out how many lights we had,” laughs Jerri Northedge, manager of outdoor lighting at Dominion Energy, which is in the midst of Washington, D.C.’s upgrade. “We didn’t even know.”
We didn’t even know.
Consider that for a second, especially if you’re reading this from a vaguely uncomfortable desk chair at a city government office. When tasked with upgrading the capitol’s streetlights to LEDs, step one for the utility was to count the damn lights.
“We didn’t even know if we were losing money providing lights for our customers,” she added.
If D.C. started there, any size city can start anywhere and achieve results. Granted, each municipality will have to take a unique path to figuring out how to make LED conversion a reality.
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In D.C.’s case, it took five years to set up a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) office, which ultimately enabled the money to fall into place to upgrade 75,000 lights (yes, they did count them), swap out heads and poles, and add 239 wifi access points. Soon, the entire district’s outdoor lighting will be able to be controlled like a smart home.
“We could only do it because of a Public-Private Partnership model,” confesses Neelima Ghanta, acting Chief Operations Officer at the District Department of Transportation. “We have a mayor that has a vision.”
$160 million of the initial $309 million needed for the project came from the D.C. Bond Revenue Program. The tax-exempt, private bonds included a green designation and received a private activity bond allocation from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“That whole thing kicked this off and made this possible,” added Ghanta, who predicts the total cost for the D.C. project to be more than $500 million. Another huge chunk was secured through the Federal Highway Administration’s Carbon Reduction Plan, which still has billions of dollars available for projects that can prove they reduce carbon output.
“Street lights are a part of this,” explains Carlos Lopez, Sr., product marketing manager at Itron. “In many places, a 400-word application is all you need to access this money. Can you measure the results of your carbon project? Yes! Software calculates that for you.”
“We are a great shining star of success for them. Reach out to cities and use D.C. as an example,” encourages Ghanta.
“It’s a no-brainer, really, for most local governments. Still, some just don’t have any funding for it,” lamented Dominion’s Northedge in a panel at Smart Cities Connect. “If it’s not free, a lot of times local governments can’t move forward.”
Dominion is offering an LED conversion program to its customers to proactively make their lighting smarter, regardless of their funding situation. “We can say hey, this is what this really looks like and that helps them garner support from key stakeholders,” she explained.
According to Itron’s Lopez, while big metros often have diverse resources, small and mid-sized cities struggle to find partners for LED conversion. “But utilities are increasingly moving in that space,” he says. “Soon those small cities will have a big friend doing their 20th or 30th conversion in that territory.”
GO DEEPER: At the recent Itron Inspire event in San Antonio, Texas, Carlos Lopez, Senior Product Marketing for Smart Cities Americas at Itron, sat down with Clarion Events Vice President, Transmission and Distribution Stephanie Kolodziej to discuss how Itron’s smart streetlight products are helping cities save energy and reduce their carbon footprint.
Despite months of initial delays, D.C. celebrated hitting the halfway mark in November and is still on pace to complete its project in about two years (May 2024). By this time next year, Dominion should understand exactly how much energy they’re saving. Ghanta predicts a savings of 86 GWh/year and expects an energy reduction of 50-60% by wattage.
The savings and the selling points
For cities and utilities alike, the finances of LED conversion make it an alluring starting place for smart city infrastructure. In many cases, such projects pay for themselves within only a few years.
“The ROI (return on investment) is so good,” says Dominion’s Northedge. “For some customers, it’s a two-year ROI and everything after that is just savings.”
Lopez says that a two-year return on investment is not uncommon and that he’s seen five-to-seven-year ROIs in major cities. “It also doesn’t take 10 or 20 years to deploy,” he adds. “It can be done in months in a small city, years in bigger ones… These things sell themselves.”
The City of Philadelphia, which owns its 130,000+ streetlights, is in the process of transforming them into efficient LED systems with smart controls. The Philadelphia Streetlight Improvement Project (PSIP) is the city’s most significant energy conservation endeavor to date.
“LED streetlights will enhance the quality of life for all Philadelphians by providing better, more reliable lighting. It will also help us advance toward our city’s goals for Vision Zero, by providing better visibility to reduce traffic crashes,” said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.
Public safety was also a selling point in Memphis, where Ameresco is partnering with Memphis Gas Light and Water to upgrade 77,000+ fixtures.
“No longer will criminals have safe harbor to operate under cover of darkness,” stated Memphis mayor Jim Strickland. A study by the University of Chicago’s Urban Labs linked increased lighting to a 36% crime reduction.
Mike Grigsby, director of business development at the intelligent infrastructure software company Ubicquia, thinks better lighting inherently promotes healthier communities. “People are spending more time outdoors in their respective areas, which naturally lowers crime and blight,” he noted. “People are taking ownership when the lights in their community actually stay on.”
The Memphis project is slated to be finished by the end of the year. Per Ameresco, it will result in annual energy savings of more than 37 million kWh and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 26,000 metric tons. Ameresco program manager Tony Rinaldi expects the project’s maintenance savings to nearly match its energy savings and that it will pay for itself over the life of the system. Each LED is anticipated to last 23 years, and the smart systems will notify MGLW when one goes out.
“We won’t have to go back for many years,” laughs Rinaldi.
Brad Gates, manager of electric construction and maintenance at Memphis Gas Light and Water, doesn’t regret the added cost of smart control functions, saying he expects those controls to pay for themselves ten-fold.
“I’d say 99% of the residents are proud and happy we’re actually doing something for the city of Memphis,” relayed Gates. “Looking back, there’s no hesitation. It was a great decision.”
What comes next?
To get an idea of where we’re headed, it helps to look West. Fremont, California began its LED conversion in 2016, becoming one of the first municipalities to take the plunge. Since 2020, there has been a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from a 2005 baseline and now Fremont is onto other projects.
“The cleantech sector is a big part of our local economy,” boasts Hans Larsen, Fremont’s public works director. The city has installed carport solar systems in seven major facilities, partnered with Tesla to electrify its police vehicles, and is working with companies like Electricfish on fleet charging solutions.
LED conversion served as a “no-brainer starting point” which has allowed for future applications to be built- off of and around- smart lighting infrastructure. Smart sensors that can count pedestrians, measure air quality, and limitless other possibilities are on the table.
“How do you empower citizens and the environment around it?” Ubicquia’s Grigsby asked the Smart Cities Connect attendees. “It’s something that can be done at scale with lighting. Look at public safety and citizen engagement.”
According to the United States Department of Energy, widespread adoption of LED lighting by 2027 could save 348 TWh of electricity, equivalent to a 64 million metric ton reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. It’s estimated about 40% of our nation’s streetlights are still due to be converted to LEDs.
“Oh, we’re gonna get there,” believes Dominion’s Northedge. “It’s not just conceptual anymore. There are real-life, existing demonstrations of most of these technologies where we are seeing success. If you’re not engaged in some way or another, you’re in the dust. Now is the time to start implementing some of these solutions.”
“You can use D.C. as a model for mid-size deployment and take that to other cities,” recommended Ghanta of the District Department of Transportation.
And if it takes your city five years to set up a Private-Public Partnership office to find the funding?
“The second project should move much faster,” she joked.