Utility helps local cities switch to more efficient LED lights

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Streetlights that use energy-efficient technology could become a growing part of how Clark County illuminates its roadways, parking lots and neighborhoods.

The cities of Vancouver, Battle Ground, Camas and Washougal have either completed or are well into pilot projects to replace several hundred streetlights that use conventional bulbs with light-emitting diode, or LED, streetlights.

Officials involved in the work, fueled by federal stimulus dollars, say if the benefits of conservation, and savings in energy and maintenance costs are achieved — as expected — then LED streetlights could become embedded in the county’s land-use codes.

“When a developer comes in to develop a neighborhood, we could possibly require LED streetlights to be put in,” said Jim Dunn, interim public works director for the city of Washougal.

A ‘promising technology’

Rick Dyer, director of finance for Clark Public Utilities, which helped the cities kick off their pilot projects, said the utility supports including standards for energy-efficient streetlights in land-development codes. The work to do that, though, will take some time, he said.

“It’s a developing technology,” Dyer said of LEDs.

Clark County is one of many metro areas across the United States looking at LED streetlights, among other energy-efficiency measures, as a way to achieve conservation goals and to cut down on energy costs.

Light-emitting diodes cost more than traditional lights, but cost less in the long run because they last longer and use less electricity. They’re also brighter, experts said, and cast a more directed light onto the street, which reduces light pollution.

“It’s a very promising technology, but it’s really new,” said Bill Hibbs, street-lighting specialist for Clark Public Utilities. “Within the next five years you’re going to see rapid declines in the amount of wattage necessary to power these lights.”

Hibbs said Seattle and Los Angeles are among the cities on the West Coast that have adopted the technology for lighting purposes.

Rate under review

For now, Clark Public Utilities is laying the groundwork to account for the arrival of LED streetlights in the county. The utility’s three elected commissioners are examining a proposal to add LED rates that would be charged to customers that use the technology to brighten streets and parking lots.

There are two proposed LED rates: $2.40 per month to operate one 70-watt LED streetlight and $7.19 per month to run one 187-watt LED streetlight.

Both LED rates are lower than the rates charged to run the equivalent conventional bulbs.

For example, running a 70-watt LED streetlight for $2.40 per month is $1.51 cheaper than powering the equivalent 100-watt conventional streetlight, which now costs $3.91 per month.

The utility also wants to revise its rates for non-LED streetlights, in order to simplify and improve its charges for providing electricity to conventional streetlight bulbs.

The proposed revisions to non-LED rates would amount to $3.59 per month to operate one 100-watt conventional streetlight (about 32 cents less than the current rate of $3.91) and $5.99 per month to power one 150-watt conventional bulb (about 22 cents more than the current rate of $5.77).

Clark Public Utilities provides electricity to some 46,000 streetlights for 5,700 customers — encompassing mostly municipalities, plus some businesses and individuals — and 958 lighting districts serving unincorporated areas outside city boundaries.

Dyer, the utility’s finance director, said the Clark Public Utilities board expects to decide on LED and conventional streetlight rates at its July 26 meeting.

The first bills under the changes could be sent to streetlight customers beginning Sept. 1.

Dyer said most of them should see a slight decrease in their bills.

Projects pursued

Earlier this year, Vancouver used $60,000 in Recovery Act funding to replace 50 conventional bulbs with LED fixtures, including from West 34th Street north to the main entrance of Frito Lay along Fruit Valley Road.

Clark Public Utilities teamed up with the cities of Battle Ground, Camas and Washougal to replace up to 250 conventional bulbs with LEDs. The streetlight program is part of a larger energy-efficiency project, which includes replacing bulbs in traffic signals and vehicle beacons, funded by a $405,000 federal Recovery Act grant.

30 percent savings

Battle Ground has so far installed 41 LED streetlights. Camas has put up 58 and has ordered another 40. Washougal has finished its LED streetlight project, replacing 100 conventional bulbs with the new technology.

Utility officials estimate the cities will see a 30 percent reduction in electricity costs by replacing 100-watt sodium streetlights with 70-watt LEDs.

The cities are testing and measuring the effects of the LED lights, and they’re surveying residents about what they think of them.

Aaron Corvin: 360-735-4518 or aaron.corvin@columbian.com