The Blinding Cost of Street Lighting When Purchase Decisions Are Improperly Managed

Posted on September 1st, 2011 by

Have you ever thought what our physical environment would look like without the benefit of street lighting?  This seemingly mundane piece of engineering is taken for granted by most citizens and yet – without it – our entire social, commercial and urban landscape would be shockingly transformed.  It’s hard to believe that the electric light is an invention of only the last 130 years.

Municipal street, highway and public space lighting serves a critical function with regard to the safety and security of cities across the nation.  In addition to illuminating the nighttime sky, the matrix of municipal lighting adds to the social fabric of our communities – enabling residents to enjoy public spaces after hours, keeping streets and tunnels bright and easy to navigate, and beautifying city horizons. But this amazing convenience and safety amenity is not cheap.  While public lighting provides obvious operational and aesthetic value, it also represents a major energy expenditure on the municipal, state and federal levels – costing U.S. taxpayers an exorbitant amount each year.

On the local level, street lighting costs represent one of the largest components of a city government’s utility bill, often accounting for 10 to 38 percent of the total tab.  According to the Clinton Global Climate Initiative, the energy used by street lighting installations accounts for the third largest use of power in local governments.

On a national level, the figures are even more astounding. In the United States, lighting in general involves 22 percent of all electricity demand.  Of that percentage, there are nearly 35 million street lights in the United States, and that volume accounts for about 1 percent of all electricity used nationally.  While that number may seem small, it actually represents an absolutely monumental spend.

Why are these costs so high and are there any changes that could occur at the local, state or national level to tame these expenditures? 

A large part of the problem lies in the type of street lighting that is currently deployed on a national level.  For decades, the majority of public lighting (used to illuminate streets, public areas, tunnels, bridges, highways, factories, warehouses, etc.) has been from High Intensity Discharge (HID) fixtures.  While revolutionary for illuminating a large area at its inception, HID is far from energy efficient when compared to technologies that have since emerged.  Furthermore, this conventional outdated technology  uses hazardous materials that – when discarded due to the need for frequent re-lamping – further clog our nation’s landfills,  plus, it also creates fossil fuel emissions that contribute to global warming.  Thankfully, the federal government sees the periodic need to reform our nation’s lighting strategy, which is why, for example, they have moved to ban sale of all incandescent light bulbs by 2012. At the same time, Uncle Sam is also bolstering support for cleaner and more efficient street lighting platforms as well.

With tax incentives, rebates and other motivational efforts, the government and local utilities are helping manufacturing corporations see the light and many are researching and developing the next greatest invention since … well, the light bulb.

Even without these efforts, the open market is evolving on its own.  Every 10 to 15 years there is a changing of the guard when it comes to lighting technologies – and right now, we are in the midst of that change.  Companies are moving increasingly to adopt cleaner and more energy efficient lighting technologies such as induction lighting over older legacy system for both industrial grade overhead indoor lighting solutions and for outdoor (street, highway, tunnel, bridge and building perimeter) al Halide, lighting.  Outdated indoor systems such as High Pressure Sodium or Metal Halide have excessive operating temperatures (as high as 600 degrees) and require extra coolant measures that, in turn, burn more energy.  Traditional outdoor lighting is equally energy “inefficient” because these systems 1.) require high maintenance and more manpower to manage frequent change-outs and replacements, 2.) create more toxic landfill “e-waste,” again, because of their shorter life span, and 3.) utilize more energy in general to achieve operability.

Induction systems, such as those manufactured by Irvine, Calif.-based US Lighting Tech provide more energy efficiency, greater cost and energy savings (of nearly 50 percent over other lighting technologies), and are easier on the environment – a quality that is highly attractive to business, corporations and government entities looking to “go green” and save tax payer dollars (plus our globe’s natural eco-balance).

Other lighting technologies hold promise for a clean and efficient future with further development as well.  LED (Light Emitting Diod) technology is enjoying a wave of excitement at the moment for its future potential; however, as is common, new technology comes at a price for research and development.  Current equipment costs for LED are far higher than induction.  Also, tests in the real world have yet to prove its reliability over the long haul.  LED manufacturers and suppliers quote lab tests that suggest that the lifespan of a LED streetlight is equivalent to induction at about 10 years; however, their tests are frequently engineered to replicate a consistent average temperature of 59 degrees, 24 hours a day.  In reality, extreme heat or cold, even when the light is not in use, can take its toll on the inner circuitry and cause premature failure.  Ultimately, further research and development may provide more hearty protection against failure, but in the meantime some cities who are jumping into future technology too soon – without looking at all available options – are gambling with their citizens’ hard earned taxpayer dollars.

So when and how does a city make decisions to balance financial savings with new technology? There is a measurable trend among cities and municipalities to realize substantial financial gains by switching to more energy efficient industrial lighting alternatives, such as induction, and make better purchase decisions with regard to their public lighting investments – decisions that involve a green platform also capable of delivering better overall performance.

There are a plethora of case studies that speak about the way that both commercial and local, state and federal entities have avoided catastrophic results and headed off energy waste on a systemtic level by making more prudent lighting decisions – and this trend is sure to be one of the main infrastructure “value vs. cost” debates in the months and years to come.  Public lighting installation and consumption equals a significant energy spend, but these are mandatory investments.  After all, every urban environment needs illumination.  But on the local and national levels, these dollars can be more effectively managed through a careful analysis of platform efficiency and selection – and we can begin to sway the energy bill, one lighting installation at a time.

Written and contributed by Richard Ham, president of US Lighting Tech, one of the leading developers of energy efficient induction lighting and a leading proponent of the environmental and cost-saving benefits of this alternative technology.


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One Person has left comments on this post

» Richard said: { Sep 13, 2011 - 11:09:00 }

Cities and Towns now have a choice for the financial end of the LED Street Light Retrofit. Kardings offers full lease to own for your towns street/traffic lights. No money down, no grant money needed, no stimulus, plus we will subsidize the installation time with two or three payments to your city ,one upon contract signing. Sign contract , subsidy check , receive and install all of the lights at once and start saving. Please have your City Officials review , now there are limited excuses why all cities and towns cannot make the change to energy efficient lighting.

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