Bellingham plans to convert streetlights to LEDs this year

City streets soon will look more colorful at night and be cheaper to light as staff members move to replace the city’s less-efficient street lamps with energy-saving LED lighting this year.

Replacing about 3,600 city-owned high-pressure sodium lights with LEDs should save about $3.5 million in energy costs over the life of the bulbs, public works staff told members of Bellingham City Council Monday morning, April 13.

The lights are expected to reduce the city’s carbon footprint by about 1.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide each year. That’s equal to burning 848,110 fewer pounds of coal per year, or taking 79 average homes off the grid, said Clark Williams, city superintendent of transportation.

Though they will technically put out the same amount of light as the current lamps, the LEDs will use fewer watts and seem brighter, he said.

“It’s a different light spectrum, so it will look brighter,” Williams said. “It really shows off way more color at night. We’re used to seeing a monotone, dull orange glow.”

The lights can be controlled so no light spills toward the skies as “light pollution,” and staff members will be able to dim them remotely after a certain hour to save even more money, Williams said.

“There’s a little radio module on each light,” Williams said. “If (the lights) are on 100 percent, in terms of brightness, up until say, 2 a.m., then we could dim them to 70 percent for half the night, so we save that much more.”

Those radio controls also alert employees about bulbs that have burnt out or are close to burning out. Currently, public works relies on people calling in those outages, Williams said.

To pay for the project, the city would get a 12-year low-interest loan of about $3 million from the state, which will be paid for by the offset in energy costs.

The energy savings, coupled with a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Commerce, and $400,000 in rebates from Puget Sound Energy, are guaranteed to pay back the costs of the $4 million retrofit, Williams said. The project does not include plans for roughly 1,700 other streetlights in the city that are owned by PSE.

Each bulb has a 10-year warranty but is expected to last 100,000 hours, roughly 22 years, since they are only on at night, Williams said.

After the Monday morning presentation, council member Michael Lilliquist said he was supportive of the plan but worried about the efficiency of replacing the current bulbs before they burn out.

“In general this is a great idea, with modern technology it saves money, saves energy and saves on maintenance,” Lilliquist said. “I’m worried about the embodied carbon in the waste from throwing away about half the lamp heads that still have two years of life in them.”

Public Works Director Ted Carlson said the bulbs would be recycled and that the city had looked at doing the project over multiple years, but to guarantee savings and get the grant from Commerce, the city needed to replace all 3,600 bulbs to make the project work.

The city first looked at getting the LEDs in 2009 but at the time the bulbs cost about $500 per fixture, so even with the longer lifespans the city wouldn’t have saved money, Williams said. Now the cost is down to about $150 per fixture.

The City Council approved the plan at Monday night’s regular council meeting. Installation could start in June and be finished by November.

The amount the city will take out in a state loan was updated Thursday afternoon, April 16, 2015.