Elk Grove explores LED future for street lamps

Elk Grove neighborhoods could soon glow under LED light if leaders move ahead with a plan to replace traditional street lamps with the energy-saving technology, joining other cities that are switching to save money and electricity.

City public works officials are still penciling out costs, but if Elk Grove council members approve the project by the end of the fiscal year, it could go out to bid by early summer, said Richard Shepard, Elk Grove’s public works director. Work would start around August and could be completed by year’s end.

The city would work with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District to retrofit 11,000 lights throughout the region’s second-largest city this fall. A half-dozen test sites already dot blocks across Elk Grove as the city and utility evaluate several types of lights.

One of the test locations is Suarez Avenue, just north of the intersection of Elk Grove and Big Horn boulevards.

“The lights are very blue – very bright,” said Suarez resident Mikel Low. “But if it’s saving the city money, if it’s energy efficient and better for the environment, it’s something we all should be conscious of.”

Officials at the city and SMUD say technology, timing and cost favor the lighting project. In Elk Grove, a city of 160,000, the street-light energy bill runs nearly $1 million a year, much of it the result of standard high-pressure sodium lamps, according to the city’s public works department.

Moving to light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, could save the city about $400,000 a year and cut its electricity usage by half, Shepard said. He said the longer-lasting LEDs will also reduce maintenance and replacement costs and that investing in the technology has also begun to make financial sense for cities.

Some residents are waiting to be convinced whether an LED rollout will be worth the upfront costs.

“It just has to be cost-effective,” said retired hardware store owner Tom Hardy at Elk Grove Library. “It’s hard to make a judgment because I don’t know if I’m being sold a bill of goods. I’m very debt-averse. I’m a little skeptical.”

With LEDs, semiconductor material produces light when an electrical current is passed through it. The LED bulbs use energy more efficiently and last longer than standard incandescent bulbs, which use electricity to heat a filament and expend most of their energy as heat. Because the LEDs are free of mercury, the bulbs are more environmentally friendly and cheaper to dispose.

“Semiconductor technology is so much more efficient,” said Sompol Chatusripitak, a city of Sacramento senior engineer. “Not only is it more environmentally sound, but we’re much more conscientious about how we use energy.”

In Sacramento, several hundred LED lights are at work in the city core and in the city’s parking garages. LEDs can also be seen along Arden Way and Pocket Road, as well as in Natomas and along Del Paso Boulevard.

Today, Sacramento is working with Siemens on plans to retrofit the city’s 35,000 street lights over the next five years, Chatusripitak said. He said the city will spend between $9 million and $10 million on the installation.

“The energy savings part is what’s behind it. ... The bottom line is energy conservation is getting to the point where it’s paying for itself,” Elk Grove’s Shepard said. Cities, he said, “are able to do investments and have them pay off in their savings. To me, that’s the message and cities are getting that message.”

Last June, Los Angeles completed a $57 million retrofit of more than 141,000 street lights, thought to be the world’s largest program to replace street lights with LEDs. Los Angeles officials said the LEDs were expected to reduce energy expended by the city’s street lights by nearly two-thirds, save the city some $7 million and cut annual carbon emissions by nearly 48,000 metric tons – nearly half the 110,000 metric tons the old lights caused.

Locally, Rancho Cordova and West Sacramento also have recently installed LED street lighting.

Rancho Cordova is replacing its 4,800 street lights with LEDs with a $1.8 million loan from the California Energy Commission and incentive funding from SMUD. That project should be completed in April. Rancho Cordova officials say the lights last far longer than standard street lamps and could reduce maintenance costs 80 percent or more. They anticipate energy cost savings will pay back the loan in 10 years’ time.

West Sacramento in November wrapped up a $1.5 million, 2,500-lamp project, working with Siemens in its Southport area. Officials there anticipate savings of about 1.8 million kilowatt-hours and about $225,000 a year.

As technology advances and the LED marketplace becomes more competitive, SMUD customer solutions manager Ed Hamzawi sees a parallel for cities embracing LEDs.

“The journey akin to this is what we did 10 years ago with traffic lights – this new, bizarre technology called LED. Now you can hardly see a traffic light that’s not LED,” Hamzawi said. “It’s now on the cusp of being the next standard technology. ... The market has evolved to where that’s feasible. The timing is just about right now.”