Atlantic Cities
The Big Fix

The Secret Energy Drain on Cities: Streetlights

The Secret Energy Drain on Cities: Streetlights
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Streetlights, often tens of thousands of them spread throughout the entire footprint of a city, represent an impressively large drain on city budgets. They are often cities' biggest or second biggest energy demand, and can amount to somewhere between one-quarter and one-half of a city's entire energy bill, sometimes even more.

But just like the power-saving curly-cue CFL light bulbs we've been implored to install in our homes and offices, there's been major improvements in the technology and efficiency of streetlights. Switching out light bulbs – at home and on city streets – is a relatively simple way to cut down energy use and spend less money.

Of course, changing an entire city's streetlights is a little more complex than switching out the bulb in your bathroom.

"Streetlights are long-term investments. They'll often last 10 years or even longer," says Jim Filanc, director at the California-based utilities contractor Southern Contracting. "These types of change-outs really don’t happen that often."

Despite the complexities of citywide streetlight conversion, cities from Seattle to San Jose to Albany are taking the step to replace their streetlights with newer and better technology. The leader of this movement is arguably San Diego County, where a sustainable technology initiative is giving cities a free toolkit that makes this complex and expensive project bureaucratically straightforward, even in small and resource-strapped municipalities.

Under the leadership of a program called CleanTECH San Diego, cities in the area have been able to streamline what would otherwise be a cumbersome process to make the switch from old bulbs to new. And with grant money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, 13 cities in the region have kicked off projects to replace about 55,000 streetlights, which will save an estimated $3 million annually.

The largest among those cities is San Diego, which will be replacing about 90 percent of its streetlights, roughly 35,000. The city is replacing its old low-pressure sodium lights – a common streetlight – with induction bulbs that use about 40 percent less energy. 16,500 have already been converted, and officials expect the transition to be finished by next spring.

Before the conversion, the city had been paying about $4.7 million a year to light its streets. When all 35,000 lights are replaced, that cost will drop to about $2.8 million a year, according to Tom Blair, deputy environmental services director for the City of San Diego.

And it's not just energy costs that will go down. The old sodium bulbs typically had to be replaced every 3 or 4 years, while the new induction bulbs can last more than a decade. Blair says a set of induction bulbs were installed in downtown San Diego about 12 years ago and have yet to need replacement. "That’s a significant savings," Blair says.

"It was kind of a no-brainer," says Marty Turock, a program manager at CleanTECH San Diego. "Virtually every city, at least within San Diego County, recognized that doing the street lighting retrofits was one of the biggest impacts and one of the biggest payback energy efficiency projects they could take on."

And because of the open toolkit approach, every city was able to easily venture through the process of approving the switchover, buying the bulbs and contracting the firms to do the installation. Cities like Santee, La Mesa, and El Cajon have all essentially gone through the same process without having to replicate any unnecessary work.

"They just sent a note to council saying 'we'd like to utilize this piggyback clause,' council signed off on it and they were able to go straight to procurement," says Turock.

He says that copy-and-paste procurement ends up saving a lot of time and money that would normally have been spent on clerical paperwork, the development of RFPs, dealing with appeals and jostling with contractors over project specifications. He's hoping other cities within the San Diego area will take advantage of the program and that all 145,000 streetlights powered through San Diego Gas and Electric will soon be higher-efficiency induction bulbs. He's even hopeful that the idea will go beyond the region.

"There's no reason why other cities, counties, entities couldn’t replicate this model," Turock says.

Photo credit: Sergey Karpov /Shutterstock

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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