Developing a Long-term Streetlight Replacement Plan

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Streetlights decorated with lighted garland and red velvet bows are an annual source of pride in Frankfort. But city superintendent Joshua Mills had even more reason for good cheer last December when he scanned the lights along Main Street in the small northwest lower Michigan community.

That’s because Frankfort is now saving roughly $3,000 on its annual light bill as a result of a streetlight survey conducted by Consumers Energy. Mills is pleased to add dollars to the city coffers. What’s more, he now has an accurate account of his community’s 400 streetlights and is working with Consumers Energy to develop a plan for transitioning them to more energy-efficient options in the future.

“The survey was excellent,” Mills said. “Any time we have an opportunity to realize cost savings in any area it’s a huge benefit. And this also is about energy conservation. We’re trying to become a little more green and minimize the overall carbon footprint of our community and this is one facet.”

Frankfort is far from alone. Consumers Energy is helping communities across Michigan keep its streets lit affordably while making the transition to more efficient lamps.  The company’s efforts stem largely from the Federal Energy Policy Act of 2005, which mandated the gradual phase out of mercury vapor streetlights. The intent of the federal law, which bans the manufacturing or importing of mercury vapor ballasts, was to reduce mercury pollution, save energy and money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Roughly 70,000 mercury vapor streetlights currently are operating in Consumers Energy’s electric service territory. Most are owned and maintained by the company.  Eventually, those lights must be switched to more efficient — and in some cases more expensive — alternatives. Consumers Energy estimates the transition could take up to 10 years.

Some communities may face upfront costs, depending upon whether they choose to switch to high-pressure sodium or LED lamps. Consumers Energy is helping small and big municipalities alike prepare for the change.

“We need to help our customers with the transition because this represents real costs that they need to accommodate,” said Jon Allan, executive director of environmental policy and intergovernmental affairs. “Rather than impose a plan on them, we’re looking to provide communities with options they can evaluate within their financial ability and community interest.”

The first step in the lighting transition process is a comprehensive streetlight survey. In 2009, Consumers Energy started working with municipalities to take complete streetlight inventories. The goal is to confirm how many streetlights are in each community, what type of bulb they use, who owns them and who is responsible for maintenance.

It’s not easy — or fast. Maps in hand, interns and employees must verify every light in a municipality. In many cases, they also must perform a night survey to determine the types of bulbs, which give off different colored glows. Another challenge is determining which municipalities are responsible for streetlights on the borders of communities being surveyed.

The company has completed more than 30 surveys and currently is working on 55 more, said Linda Marklin, team leader of the statewide streetlight project. From start to finish, the surveys take about six months on average. But the time and effort are a solid investment, Marklin said.

“As we transition away from mercury vapor, we have to make sure the company and municipalities agree that the maps and the bills are correct,” she said. “We need to know we’re all starting on the same page.”

Once a community develops a lighting transition plan, the company will use it to implement the specific changes.  In some cases, the surveys have resulted in refunds to municipalities. That’s appreciated in places such as Frankfort, which already uses high-pressure sodium streetlights but is working with Consumers Energy to understand the benefits and costs of upgrading to even more efficient lighting.

“The whole process with Consumers Energy went extremely smooth,” Mills said. “They responded quickly and the survey has given us a basis for laying out new types of lighting in certain areas of the city. We’re evaluating our options.”

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