Reinventing the Street Light

Local distributors hope to profit from looming energy-efficient lighting upgrades

For manufacturers and distributors of low-energy light bulbs and fixtures, it's the equivalent of striking gold.

With thousands of streetlamps waiting to be upgraded, and in the case of the City of Vancouver, plenty of budgetary pressure to reduce its approximately $1 million annual light bill, municipal contracts promise to be a growing revenue stream for local dealers in energy efficient bulbs.

"Communities are increasing their demand for energy every day, which means that the business of reducing energy usage is booming," said Keith Scott, president of Pacific Energy Concepts in Vancouver.

Scott's firm is one of 10 local companies looking to participate in a City of Vancouver pilot program using $40,000 in federal stimulus grant money to test energy efficient streetlamps, according to Vancouver Public Works superintendent Tim Buck.

But representatives of these companies, as well as city officials such as Buck, hope the limited installation program will only be the beginning.

And if the claims of manufacturers of LED and fluorescent lighting technology hold water, cities like Vancouver could see up to a 60 percent reduction in energy usage over existing streetlamps.

However, according to Buck, the real question lies in the initial cost of purchasing, installing and maintaining the energy-efficient bulbs. "We're going to see if the payback is worth it in terms of dramatic energy savings," Buck said.

To woo municipal clients, Scott bills his Orion-brand fluorescent bulbs as being as energy efficient as LED lighting technology, for a smaller price tag. According to Scott, his company's fluorescent bulb would cost the city about $300 for each "cobra-head" streetlamp fixture, compared to a range of $400 to $1,000 for an LED equivalent.

That's still more expensive than the $235 price tag for one of the city's existing high-pressure sodium fixtures, however. So to test the feasibility of gradually upgrading the bulk of the city's 17,000-plus street lights, transportation planners and engineers will conduct a test involving three to four different vendors equipping 50 streetlamps along the Fruit Valley Corridor.

According to Vancouver traffic engineering manager Ali Eghtedari, energy usage is only one of many different yardsticks by which planners will judge the new efficient fixtures. For instance, federal guidelines covering not only the brightness of streetlamps, but of the gradient between light and dark, must also be met, Eghtedari said.

"There needs to be a harmony between the minimum and maximum amount of light to eliminate ‘black spots' which may lead motorists to lose control and focus," he said.

Also under consideration in the city's energy efficient street lamp pilot program, Tony Germer of Portland-based HD Supply Utilities, Ltd. hopes to fit the bill.

A Vancouver resident and a representative selling LED technology, including bulbs developed by General Electric, Germer's firm has already established a strong base as a supplier to public utilities. But with not only Vancouver, but the city of Battle Ground using federal money to test energy efficient street fixtures, Germer's sights are securely set on a still largely-untapped municipal lighting market.

Though LEDs are more expensive than fluorescent bulbs, Germer touted the technology as being superior in terms of light quality, with a tested 50,000-hour life cycle. By comparison, existing high-pressure sodium lamps used by the City of Vancouver have a tested 20,000 to 24,000 hour lifespan; for florescent bulbs, it's 42,000 hours.

 "LED is the future, and it's where the technology is going," Germer said.

However, Buck acknowledged some reservations regarding the implementation and maintenance of relatively-new LED lighting systems.  In addition to the City of Vancouver's pilot program, Buck said he is also closely monitoring the results of Seattle's much larger energy-efficient streetlamp upgrade experiment.

"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel," Buck said. "Instead we're trying to rely on other people's experience."

Buck cited the relative expense of LED bulbs, as well as issues regarding the replacement of the occasional blown-out individual LED "nodes" within a single light fixture. "It's people like Tim Buck who have to decide how much it will cost in terms of manpower to send a guy up into a bucket to replace one of those things," said Scott, who represents the only firm selling fluorescent light fixtures in a city pilot program filled with LED distributors.

Short for light-emitting diode, LEDs do have one drawback which manufacturers have sought to address with product design, according to Germer: heat. "Though LEDs are really not hard to produce, it is hard to design and implement the technology to account for heat," he said, referring to excess temperature which can disable an LED bank or array.

However, according to Germer, fluorescent bulbs have the opposite problem.  "They need heat to operate," he said. "Can you imagine lighting a street in a city at dusk in winter, with it taking a while to turn up?"

For these local firms, often selling several different kinds of energy efficient lighting products, competition for a still-paltry number of municipal clients is fierce.

Currently about 90 percent of Pacific Energy Concept's customer base is composed of industrial and commercial firms, mostly looking to upgrade their parking lot lighting systems, according to Scott.

But Scott, who has hired three new sales representatives to pursue new clients, still looks to ride an "inevitable" wave of technological upgrades of what he called aging and inefficient city street lighting systems.

According to Germer, cash-strapped cities like Vancouver may have few other good options to reduce their fixed energy costs. "Power is still relatively cheap here," he said. "But as prices go up, I think there will be more incentive for municipalities to make the move to energy-efficient lighting technology."