Athens City looks at Upgrading Streetlighting

By Kayla Beard |

Published: 1/14/2019

ATHENS — The city of Athens is considering authorizing a project to redesign and replace old, high-energy-consumption streetlights with modern LED fixtures. A representative from Tanko Lighting – a San Francisco-based company that specializes in helping municipalities replace old-style light fixtures with LEDs – gave a presentation to the Athens City Council members on Monday, outlining some potential benefits of making the switch.

Morgan Melendrez, of Tanko Lighting, told council that the city could save millions of dollars, long term, by switching all of the old-school, low-efficiency streetlights in town with fixtures that use the energy-efficient LEDs. The plan would require the city to purchase many pre-existing streetlight fixtures, however, as most of the existing ones are owned by AEP, the electric utility that serves the Athens area.

Athens Service-Safety Director Andy Stone explained at the meeting that roughly two thirds of the streetlights in Athens are rented from AEP, and the others are owned by the city and metered by the electric company. 

“The fees we get charged for two-thirds of our streetlights, those are the ones that we rent from American Electric Power, are relatively high, and they’re high for a couple reasons,” Stone said. 

The first reason, he explained, is that AEP has no interest in converting from the “high-pressure sodium” high-watt-consumption lights the city is currently renting to energy-efficient LEDs.

“Number two: there’s a flat maintenance fee that’s charged per fixture in order for bulbs to be changed if a light burns out,” Stone said. 

When a light goes out, the city contacts AEP “and they come around and they fix the bulb and we keep going,” Stone said, “but we continue to get (charged) that flat fee every month.” He added that the city pays about $200,000 a year out of the General Fund for street lighting (though Melendrez maintained in an email Thursday morning that that number is more like $162,000).

In addition to the maintenance cost, the city pays a flat per-fixture rate for all of the AEP-owned lights. “It’s anywhere from, I think, $8 a fixture for the lowest-wattage, shortest-arm fixtures to over $20 for the highest-wattage, longest-arm fixtures,” Stone said. “... It’s a lot of money.” 

Melendrez said that the cost of lighting under an energy-only agreement with AEP, once the fixtures are owned by the city, “would drop roughly to around $3 per fixture.” 

He estimated, based on information about the city’s current street-lighting expenses, that the city could save $2 million over 20 years.

“The project would pay for itself in under five years,” he predicted, adding that five years would be “a worst-case scenario.

“Well under five years is what we’re expecting for this conversion,” he added.

LED lights also have a much longer anticipated lifespan than the high-pressure sodium bulbs, according to Melendrez. 

“Lumen depreciation (or the amount of light production lost over time) is drastically less with an LED,” Melendrez said. “Within six months of the current system, you’re looking at 60 percent of that lumen output disappearing. With an LED, it’s about 5 percent over five to 10 years, too. So, you’d have a lot more light to work with over a longer period of time.”

All of the city-owned lights already have been converted to either LEDs or compact-fluorescent lights (CFLs), Stone said.

“We don’t have any old-style bulbs any longer. So, we’re doing the best we can with our city-owned lights to number one, maintain them cheaply and number two, use the least amount of electricity as I can,” Stone said. “... The lights that are owned by American Electric Power are your traditional copperhead lights that you see attached to the wooden power poles in different places around the city, and there’s about 750 of those, plus or minus.” 

Those high-pressure sodium lights depreciate quickly, said Bob Heady, the city’s director of Engineering and Public Works. “A lot of them are already probably at less than 50 percent of the original light,” he said Monday.

Stone said he’s mainly concerned with replacing the fixtures the city is renting, as most of the city-owned lights have been designed within the last 5-10 years City Council member Pete Kotses, however, pointed out at the meeting that “LED technology has changed rapidly” over the years, and Stone agreed that it would be possible to consider updates to those city-owned fixtures as well.

The new fixtures would also come with solid assurances, according to Melendrez. He said that every manufacturer currently on the market offers a 10-year warranty with each fixture. “All of them are tested for 100,000 hours of useful life, so that’s 22 and a half years. So for the first 10 years, if anything were to be wrong with that fixture you simply take it down, ship it to the manufacturer and get a new one,” he explained.

No decisions were made at the meeting on Monday, and Stone said the city is not ready to move forward with any authorizing legislation just yet. The first step would be to complete an audit of the city’s lighting system with the help of Tanko Lighting, Stone and Melendrez explained, to get a better understanding of the city’s needs and potential costs before any final decisions are made.

“It looks like there’s a lot of opportunity,” Stone acknowledged.

Heady said at the meeting that he also thinks it would be  “a great opportunity” to purchase the rented streetlights and replace them with city-owned LEDs. “We do a really good job of calling in on our streetlights, but we spend a lot of time doing that as well,” Heady said. “The nice thing about the LED, if we do go this route, is that the LED fixture is designed for its location. All of our other streetlights (owned by) AEP, they just throw light out, and the globe is the only thing that controls them… 

“On the end of a cul de sac, you can have a (LED) fixture that throws a round light; on a street, we can throw rectangular light and you’d actually put in less fixtures,” Heady said.

“If we move forward with this,” he added, “we’ll actually design a street-lighting system. Where now, we just say ‘we need light, AEP can you put one on this pole?’ There’s no design to it… This will allow us to actually have the opportunity then to go back and go through the whole city… to look at the thing holistically.”

Athens City Council member Chris Fahl also recalled that “numerous people have come before council to ask about increasing streetlights in certain areas. That would mean a new pole and new lighting.” Those concerns could be addressed during a conversion to LEDs and as part of a new design, she suggested.

Fahl also noted that concern for pedestrians is one of the points that has come up during the city’s ongoing comprehensive planning process. “Those sort of things should be included with the audit, making sure that certain areas that have been identified are looked at,” Fahl said.

Another reason to consider LEDs, Stone said, is a potential decrease of light pollution. “We think we can get more light down and less light up through this initiative, beyond just saving money,” he said.

LED street lighting is new to Ohio, Melendrez said. “If Athens were to move forward with something like this, you’d certainly be ahead of the curve.”

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