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The power of LED street lights

Most of the street lights in municipalities in New York States are owned by utilities. In most of Sullivan County that utility is NYSEG, which charges the municipalities for the power they use, along with other fees including a maintenance fee on each light.

Until recently, utilities were not interested in selling their streetlights to municipalities because the lights represent a revenue stream of the company. But in recent years, various communities have expressed interest in switching from the old, energy-hungry streetlight technology such as high-pressure sodium streetlights to LED streetlights, which consume less electricity.

According to the New York Public Service Commission, in response to the desire to save energy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2015 “amended the Public Service Law by adding a new section which establishes procedures for the transfer of ownership of complete street lighting systems to municipalities or other government entities.” So now utilities don’t have a choice about whether they will sell the street lights to a municipality that expresses interest. If a municipality asks for a price quote, the utility must provide them one. Through this process, it is possible for a municipality to buy their streetlights and upgrade them to LED fixtures and lights.

The New York Power Authority (NYPA) has developed a program to help municipalities go through this process, and one of the first towns to sign on was the Town of Clarkston in Rockland County. The town underwent a program to buy roughly 3,900 street lights and replace them with LED lights. A press release from NYPA says the cost of the project was $2.9 million and financed by NYPA, to be repaid by the town.

The savings to the town was estimated to be $900,000 per year, and about 65% of that was not from energy savings but rather from reduced maintenance fees. Generally, utilities charge fairly high rates for maintenance and don’t offer very good service in return; when a streetlight goes dark, municipalities often wait months for a replacement. By contracting maintenance to local providers, municipalities can significantly reduce maintenance fees.

NYPA is actively working to encourage more municipalities to sign on. “NYPA is working with local municipalities all across New York State to replace old, inefficient lighting with energy-saving LED technology,” said Gil C. Quiniones, NYPA president and CEO. “LED street lighting is an important initiative that more local governments are exploring, as it’s not only fiscally beneficial and environmentally responsible, but it provides higher-quality lighting, making roadways safer for drivers and pedestrians.”

That applies to the Sullivan County government and about 10 town and village governments within the county, with the Towns of Bethel and Tusten already having passed resolutions to move forward. Casey Mastro, a NYPA representative, gave a presentation to representatives of several Sullivan County municipalities on February 2. NYPA has determined that it’s not cost effective for small towns with only about 100 streetlights—such as the Town of Delaware—to go forward with the purchase and updating of streetlights. But if enough towns can be gathered together to reach 400 or 500 streetlights, it can be cost effective.

With the towns of Bethel and Tusten already voting to move forward, there are some 280 street lights already committed to the program in Sullivan County. Bethel Supervisor Dan Sturm urged representatives from other towns to join the program. He said that the town’s current bill for streetlights is about $30,000 per year. He said that he expects, after the financing is paid off, to have that bill reduced to $7,000 per year.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at his State of the State Address on January 3 that he wants to retrofit 500,000 streetlights from old technology to LED by 2025. Mastro said that NYPA believes that municipal ownership of streetlights is the best way to move forward with upgrading to LED lights. He said there are other ways to do it, such as lease agreements between utilities and municipalities, “but we don’t think that’s in the best interests of a municipality mostly because utilities don’t have the municipality’s best interests at heart.”

Kudos to Bethel and Tusten for leading the way on this issue, and we would urge other municipalities to jump on the bandwagon. If a municipality can move forward with such a switch without putting out any money up front, and paying off the debt from savings created from the upgrade—which Mastro said is what is expected— that decision seems like a no-brainer.


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