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Streetlights: Changing our night sky, one lamppost at a time

Cities could be saving millions in infrastructure costs annually — while saving valuable energy resources. There are an estimated 26 million streetlights in the United States, consuming as much electricity annually as 1.9 million households and generating greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 2.6 million cars. At least 60 percent of these streetlights are owned and operated by the private sector. However, nearly all are paid for with public dollars, costing the United States more than $2 billion annually in energy alone. For many cities, street lighting is the largest fixed annual general-fund expense. Put simply, the lights must be on, and taxpayers have to pay for them.

The nation's streetlights are part of an aging infrastructure, just like our bridges and roadways. Averaging more than 25 years old, their energy and maintenance costs are escalating, even as cities face decreasing general fund revenue. Replacement of this street lighting network is overdue.


Decreasing public funds, increased public scrutiny, and customer expectations have led to heightened interest in LED street lighting. However, competing priorities like public safety, homelessness and other concerns have made initial funding difficult, even for a program with the potential to generate positive cash flow in year one. Some cities have found that converting to LED street lighting has allowed them to meet economic and efficiency expectations within the first year by immediately reducing energy and maintenance costs.

For example, after installing 21,000 LED streetlights, Seattle reduced its streetlight bill by 50 percent, saving more than $1.2 million annually. The city will save more this year after installation of 12,000 to 15,000 more lights.

Despite these challenges, cities have developed creative funding solutions. For example, the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., hired a maintenance contractor requiring installation of LED streetlights as part of the program. The contractor pays initial costs and retains a percentage of the energy and maintenance savings over the length of the contract, for an immediate cost reduction. At the end of the five-year contract, the maintenance costs are reset, and the city sees greater reductions.


New York City uses existing capital program funding to install LED streetlights. Along with immediate savings, the city maintains funding levels so additional lights can be converted to LED. With this, New York is showing conversion to LED can be affordable within the current budget without a loan.

Joint purchasing is another option that helps towns like Pocahontas, Iowa — population 1,700. In Iowa, 15 small municipal utilities cooperated to leverage American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to purchase 1,154 LED streetlights.

Many cities lack the resources or technical knowledge to undertake an LED street lighting conversion project. Others are unaware how much it can reduce their costs. How do these cities develop an effective LED street lighting program, and what resources are available?

To answer these questions, the US Department of Energy created the Municipal Solid-State Street Lighting Consortium. Managed by Seattle City Light, the consortium has more than 360 member cities, utilities and other street lighting owners. Its mission is to increase knowledge and accelerate adoption of this technology by guiding system owners in the proper selection and application of LED streetlights; bridging the knowledge gap by sharing information and experiences.

Consortium members are taking what they learn and putting it to immediate use. Several cities, big and small, have already adopted the consortium's Model Specification for LED Roadway Luminaires to purchase LED streetlights.


This movement is growing. The US Conference of Mayors passed a resolution supporting the consortium's efforts to educate members on the appropriate use and application of LED streetlights; and calls for adoption of LED streetlights for lighting public streets wherever practical. On Thursday and Friday, the consortium and the City of Boston are presending an LED street lighting workshop.

So, with all things considered, there is no reason to delay this journey and every reason to begin. When cities are looking to create efficiencies, installing LED streetlights provides immediate results. Unit cost is at an all time low. Dollars saved on street lighting today are dollars invested in other city programs tomorrow.

Edward Smalley is a streetlight manager at Seattle City Light, Seattle's publicly owned power utility. He is also currently the director of the US Energy Department's Municipal Solid-State Street Lighting Consortium, a national consortium that seeks to accelerate the deployment of energy-saving LED streetlights.