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Philly to switch all 100,000 streetlights to ‘smart’ LEDs; expect some debate

Philadelphia was the first city in America with public street lights, thanks to Ben Franklin. But the city has been a little slower to switch its public street lights to modern energy-saving LEDs.

City street lights illuminate Ninth and Arch Streets. After years of study, the city plans to launch a bidding process soon to replace all of the city's street lamps with LED lights, paying for the project with the expected energy savings.
City street lights illuminate Ninth and Arch Streets. After years of study, the city plans to launch a bidding process soon to replace all of the city's street lamps with LED lights, paying for the project with the expected energy savings.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia was the first city in America with public streetlights, thanks to Ben Franklin’s introduction of the oil candle in colonial times. But the city has been a little slower than others to switch its public streetlights to modern energy-saving LEDs, mostly because the conversion costs are high.

That’s about to change. The city’s Energy Office is preparing to issue a call for vendors who can convert all 100,000 city streetlights to LEDs in two to three years. The aim is to reduce the city’s carbon footprint and to shrink the government’s single largest energy expense — the city spends $15 million a year on streetlights. The new lamps might also provide more light in some crime-plagued neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

"The goal we’re looking at is a 40% reduction in cost,” said Richard Montanez, the deputy streets commissioner, who has advocated the conversion for about a decade. If the city can reduce costs by $6 million a year, the savings would likely cover the debt service for the project.

Converting the city’s streetlights to LEDs would cost $50 million to $80 million, said Adam Agalloco, the city’s energy manager, who is organizing a formal request for qualifications from potential vendors. The city likely would issue a bond for the project and repay the debt under Pennsylvania’s Guaranteed Energy Savings Act, which allows public entities to finance projects with the savings generated over current energy costs.

“We’re in a place where we can invest in LED street lighting and the project will pay for itself — at a minimum it will be financeable over 20 years, potentially sooner than that,” Agalloco said.

Not just about savings

City officials say the economics of switching to LEDs improved this year when Peco introduced a new tariff for “smart” street lighting at the request of Philadelphia and other municipal governments. The new street-lighting tariff, part of a larger rate package approved last year by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, could provide a compelling incentive to local governments to invest in new wirelessly networked LED systems.

The city’s conversion plan is far more complicated than swapping in LED lamps for existing high-pressure sodium bulbs. The LED lights — light-emitting diodes — require new fixtures that are connected wirelessly and managed remotely, allowing operators to dim the lights after midnight to save money or to crank them up to full brightness to assist responders during a police or fire emergency.

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The new devices would also meter the amount of electricity consumed by streetlights — streetlights currently are not metered, and the city is billed based on estimated “burn” times, as well as a fixed fee per lamp. The metering technology is at the heart of Peco’s new tariff, which shifts more of the cost of the lights to the amount of energy they consume, rewarding owners for cutting energy use.

The city has installed about 5,000 LED streetlights in several pilot projects in recent years and acquired some experience adjusting the brightness during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign rally at Independence Mall, when it turned up newly installed LED lights to 100% brightness at the request of law enforcement officials.

“It was actually brighter than normal while all the people were there," said Montanez. “As soon as the police started clearing the site, we started slowly dimming the lights.”

Montanez said it is becoming more difficult to find affordable replacement parts for traditional high-pressure sodium fixtures because suppliers are rapidly shifting to LEDs. All the street lamps around City Hall have been converted to LEDs, as well as the new streetlights installed around the former Gallery mall in Center City, now called the Fashion District.

The plan to convert streetlights is part of the Philadelphia Energy Authority’s campaign to encourage a $1 billion investment in public and private investment over 10 years to create 10,000 jobs. The project is also being promoted by the city’s Office of Sustainability.

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More light, less power

The case for switching to LEDs is a straightforward equation in energy efficiency: They generate more light with less power than conventional lighting.

Some of the city’s high-pressure sodium lights, installed in high-traffic parts of Center City, are rated as high as 400 watts. The majority of sodium streetlights in Philadelphia neighborhoods are 100-watt lamps — Montanez said an equivalent LED light would use 45 watts.

The city is experimenting with installing some LEDs that are brighter than current streetlights as a crime deterrent, said Montanez, though he acknowledged that brighter LEDS will not achieve as much energy savings.

“We have installed the equivalent of 150-watt LEDs in some areas, Kensington and North Philly, high crime areas,” he said. “Both the police and the community have asked us to light it up more than just the 100-watt equivalent.”

Peco said it created the new tariff for smart street lighting — formally, it’s called the SL-C rate — in response to requests from municipalities, including Philadelphia, which is its largest lighting customer.

“We are always conscious of what our customers want, and the city is a big customer,” said Richard A. Schlesinger, manager of retail rates. The utility also worked with the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which has promoted the conversion of street lighting in suburban communities.

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The new tariff reduces the “location charge," a fixed fee for each streetlight or cluster or lights, while it increases the per-kilowatt charge that Peco charges for delivering energy over its wires. The city hopes the reduction in energy use from the more efficient lights will more than offset the higher cost per kilowatt hour.

The switchover to a smart LED lighting system controlled through a wireless mesh network also opens the possibility that the devices could provide more than illumination, but an interconnected system of security cameras, air-quality monitors, traffic and pedestrian counters, or acoustic gunshot detectors. “The more bells and whistles you put in there, the more it costs,” said Montanez.

Color of light

The wholesale changeover of Philadelphia’s street-illumination scheme is not a subject that the city is taking lightly. Officials are bracing for some resistance and debate about the color of the lights deployed — LEDs tend to have a more bluish hue than warm sodium lights.

>> READ MORE: LED lights have made Philly a rainbow by night. So why does our civic lighting fall so flat?

Warm colors may be more desirable in some neighborhoods, while bluish lights might be more compatible with security cameras and law enforcement objectives. The American Medical Association in 2016 warned that high-intensity LED lighting that emits a large amount of blue light could worsen nighttime glare and decrease visual acuity and safety.

“We want to do a little work with neighborhoods to make sure we get feedback from the public," said Christine Knapp, head of the city’s sustainability office. "It’ll be a larger project and have more scrutiny and be a little more complicated to get everybody comfortable with the solution.”

Montanez said that the LED technology is improving rapidly, and that LEDs deployed five years ago were less efficient and more harsh than the lights currently undergoing testing. “The technology is always evolving,” he said. “That’s one advantage to being kind of slow moving on this.”

Some neighborhoods, such as Old City and Chestnut Hill, want warmer lights. “We don’t want to take away a neighborhood’s identity,” he said.

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The city’s aim is to illuminate the public right of way, not private property, he said. “We’ve been on blocks where the individual says, ‘I want the light to stop at the bottom of my step,’ and a neighbor who says, ‘I want the streetlight to light up my keyhole.’ In the same block, you’re getting two different perspectives.”

He also said that preferences vary according to gender. In surveys the city conducted in 2011 after LEDs were installed on some blocks in Northern Liberties, he said that women expressed a preference for brighter LEDs.

“Females like it brighter,” he said. “They want to see who’s coming at them, that there’s no dark shadows to hide behind.”