LED there be light!

By Ben Sonnega
Go Solar Campaign, Associate, Environment America

How cities are saving money and meeting clean energy goals with LED streetlights and solar energy

Solar panels provide clean energy to light this highway road at night; Photo Credit: Pubic Domain

Recently, I had lunch with a friend who is an energy consultant working on utility issues. As we got chatting, he mentioned that street lamps were among the biggest energy users in cities around the country. Even as someone who spends most of his day thinking about energy issues, that was surprising. When I think of energy efficiency and conservation, I have to admit street lamps aren’t at the top of my list of concerns. But after learning this interesting fact, I decided to do some research.

Street lamps are important because more and more people are moving into cities. A study done by the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems found that about 84 percent of Americans live in urban areas as of 2019 and that’s projected to increase to nearly 90 percent by 2050. This means more people, more city infrastructure and more need for well-lit streets and walkways. In other words, the number of energy-sapping street lights will only grow. As such, we need more efficient bulbs to tackle the problem. Some cities are already recognizing this important fact.

In 2011, for example, Asheville, N.C., began switching to LED bulbs under their streetlight upgrade program. The first round of replacements called for approximately 900 new high-efficiency bulbs. This led to a $45,000 annual savings. Following a second wave of installations, which replaced 9,000 additional city lights, the city recouped another $600,000 in yearly energy savings. 

With roughly 8,500 LED street lamps already installed, Philadelphia is moving forward this week with a plan to find vendors to replace the city’s remaining 100,000-plus street lights over the next few years. The project is ambitious and will come at an estimated up-front cost of $50 million to $80 million. But the switch will deliver immediate energy savings to the tune of  $5 million to $6 million annually on average. Not only will this project ultimately save money, but it also fits neatly into the city’s larger commitment to reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 (and ultimately reaching 100 percent renewable energy thereafter). These types of goals will obviously take more than one solution. But using LED lights are a definite contributor.

Solar on street lighting at the Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, CA. Photo Credit: Lance Cpl. Jake McClung

Streetlights are just one example of the endless opportunities cities possess to achieve clean energy goals. Up until recently, I wasn’t aware that these lamps could provide an outlet to hasten the transition to renewables in the long run. From now on I will look for those light-bulb moments where I can see the seemingly mundane in a different light. Because, in those situations where we can’t simply cut our energy use, we must  work to maximize efficiency to bring on a cleaner healthier future.