By ALEX KUFFNER
Journal Staff Writer
BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — After retrofitting 56 streetlights last year with high-efficiency bulbs, the Pascoag Utility District realized almost immediate savings.
Energy costs dropped by $1,710 per year and, because the new bulbs last much longer than the old ones, maintenance costs went down by $2,535 per year.
Those savings may not sound like a lot for a town, even a small one like Burrillville, but the 56 streetlights are only a fraction of the total number of lights that line the streets of Pascoag and Harrisville villages in the utility district’s service area.
If all 1,147 streetlights were changed over to more efficient light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, the savings could easily climb into the tens of thousands of dollars, a large amount considering the district spends roughly $90,000 annually on powering and maintaining the lights.
“We’re going to see substantial savings. There’s no doubt about that,” said Harle Round, who is overseeing the streetlight pilot program for the district.
Communities around the country, most notably Los Angeles and New York City, are converting their streetlights to LEDs in a bid to cut their electric bills, help reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change and save energy. If all the streetlights in the nation were converted to LEDs, the energy savings could power 1.5 million homes, according to one study.
So far, the tiny Pascoag Utility District, a nonprofit that serves about 5,000 homes and businesses, is the only entity in Rhode Island that has started to make the switch.
But that could change under a new state program that is set to roll out soon. Regulators at the state Public Utilities Commission are working out the details of an initiative that would allow municipalities to buy streetlights owned by National Grid, the utility that covers all of Rhode Island except Block Island and the Pascoag district, and then upgrade them with more efficient systems.
“This moves us in the direction of using a lot less energy,” said Jeffery Broadhead, executive director of the Washington County Regional Planning Council, which led the push for the new program. “It’s also about local control.”
While other states have programs to upgrade streetlights, Rhode Island’s may be the first in the nation to mandate lower rates not only for high-efficiency light bulbs, but for additional energy-saving measures, such as using dimmers. Officials from Oregon and California, states considered to be energy-efficiency leaders, have inquired about what Rhode Island is doing.
“What’s really unique, what hasn’t been done in other jurisdictions, is the controls associated with LEDs,” said Mike Guerard of Vermont-based Optimal Energy, a consultant to Rhode Island’s state Council on Energy Efficiency.
Most people don’t pay attention to the 105,000 or so lights that dot Rhode Island’s streets. But keeping them on at night can cost a community a lot of money — as much as 40 percent of its electric bill. Westerly pays about $400,000 for its lighting, according to the Planning Council. North Kingstown’s annual bill is about $375,000.
The total bill across the state? About $14.6 million. Making the move to LEDs could cut that cost by at least $3 million, said Broadhead.
National Grid owns the vast majority of the lights that line Rhode Island’s streets. In most states, electric utilities, not cities and towns, own the lights.
National Grid charges Rhode Island’s municipalities a fee for using the lights. That covers the cost of electricity and also factors in the capital costs of the lights themselves, as well as poles and other equipment.
The arrangement frees communities from maintaining and repairing the lights. But it means that cities and towns have no way of creating potential savings.
Under the system, there are no alternative rates for dimming lights, turning them off for certain hours or replacing traditional sodium bulbs with LEDs that can use 75 percent less energy to produce the same light.
That’s because streetlights, unlike homes or businesses, are not metered. National Grid does not levy charges based on actual usage, but instead uses a formula that factors in the amount of electricity a typical light uses over a given period of time. All communities are charged the same rate.
National Grid, like many other electric utilities, has been reluctant to change to LEDs because they are relatively new technology and, though they save money in the long term, cost a lot up front. The company is developing a pilot program to allow streetlights to be converted to LEDs without changing ownership, but it’s unclear when that will be available.
“The technology has evolved so quickly,” said David Graves, a spokesman for National Grid in Rhode Island. “There are a lot of things we have to look at.”
The new program that allows for local control of streetlights was approved by the General Assembly in its last session and signed into law by Governor Chafee in July. Under the program, a city or town can buy its streetlights and install more efficient bulbs or other equipment to cut down on electric usage.
National Grid will then charge for the use of electricity only. Usage will not be metered, so, as before, the rate will be based on a formula. But the company will charge different rates based on the different types of lighting equipment that municipalities use. Installation of a low-wattage LED bulb will translate to a lower fee than a high-wattage bulb.
Communities will also be charged lower rates if they choose to dim their lights or operate them for only part of the night.
Only recently have municipalities elsewhere started to take over the operation of their streetlights and make them more efficient. Vermont was one of the first states to allow it. In Massachusetts, about 70 cities and towns have purchased their streetlights.
The City of Providence has invested in more efficient streetlights but is using induction bulbs rather than the more common LEDs. The city owns 2,200 decorative streetlights downtown, and about 1,200 have been upgraded to new bulbs that use about half the energy of traditional ones, said Sheila Dormody, director of sustainability for the city.
She said the city is still considering whether to take advantage of the new statewide streetlight program. Other Rhode Island communities, including Charlestown and South Kingstown, have expressed strong interest, but are waiting to get specific costs for new fixtures and maintenance, said Broadhead.
Officials with the Pascoag Utility District said that their experience with LED streetlights has been nothing but positive. The new bulbs cast a crisper, brighter light than the yellowish haze emitted by common sodium lights. They are more expensive than traditional lights — about three times the cost — but with a lifespan of up to 20 years they last up to four times longer. The estimated payback time is between three and five years.
And they use a lot less power.
“The lighting is better,” said Michael Kirkwood, general manager of the Pascoag district. “And you’re saving money.”