City Council debates options for energy-saving street lights

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Electricity-saving, environment-improving street lights may be coming to Pittsburgh, if city officials can agree on how to pick a vendor.

A special City Council meeting on lighting yesterday attracted representatives of at least nine companies, one foundation, one university, and daylight-challenged Anchorage, Alaska. Pretty much everyone agreed that the city could save upwards of $1.4 million a year in energy and maintenance costs, and look nicer, if it replaces its 40,000 street lights with light-emitting diode (LED) lights, or some other high-efficiency system.

The question is how.

Councilman William Peduto, who called the meeting, has legislation before council that would tell Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to start converting the street lights to more efficient light-emitting diode technology.

"This is much more than changing light bulbs," Mr. Peduto said. "This is about urban lighting for the 21st century."

He wants Pittsburgh to be among the first North American cities to go LED, and to set up a competitive process to evaluate different products in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University and the William J. Clinton Foundation.

Mr. Ravenstahl's administration already has an internal street light committee, said Sustainability Coordinator Lindsay Baxter. Next month it expects to invite firms to submit ideas for a pilot transformation of some portion of the city's street light system to one of several available technologies, including LED. And it is working with the University of Pittsburgh's School of Engineering, rather than Carnegie Mellon.

"I am not 100 percent sold on LEDs yet," said Ms. Baxter. The pilot project could answer questions like whether heat-sensitive LEDs function well in the summer.

LEDs direct their beam more precisely, produce less heat, draw less than half the energy of conventional lamps, and can go decades without maintenance.

Public Works Director Guy Costa said the city spends around $4 million a year powering and maintaining its lights, and figured the city could shave $1.4 million from that total. Mr. Peduto estimated greater savings.

Anchorage LED Project Leader Michael Barber, joining the meeting by speakerphone, said his city spent $2.2 million on the lights and cut its energy bills by $350,000 a year, so the project will pay for itself in six years.

LEDs can have features like sensor-and-timer-controlled dimmers and programmable color changes. Luis Rico Gutierrez, director of Carnegie Mellon's Remaking Cities Institute, called them "the next era, the next phase," in public lighting, following the wooden torch, whale oil or gas lamp, and light bulb eras.

The four council members who attended seemed sold on the concept.

"I'd like us to be the city of lights," said Councilwoman Darlene Harris, arguing that effective, creative lighting could turn the city into "a work of art."

The question is how to competitively bid the work, which Mr. Peduto estimated would involve a $25 million contract. The city would probably borrow the money, and pay off the debt using the resulting savings.

The administration is testing LED lights at the corner of Grant Street and Fourth Avenue, and considering them for a state-funded project to replace Grandview Avenue's 85 outmoded street lamps. But it hasn't ruled out other efficient technologies, like induction lighting or metal halide lighting.

Mr. Peduto said he's "so convinced that LED is the optimal choice."

"We just want to make sure that the process is based on research and is open and transparent," said Ms. Baxter.

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542.


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