LEDs gain fans for cost, environmental reasons

Last modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Though once seen as quirky and costly, LED lights are winning adherents. Easthampton is saving more than $36,000 a year on electricity since it replaced about 470 of its streetlights with the technology known as light-emitting diodes. Amherst and Northampton officials are planning to install LED bulbs on streetlights in 2013 and Smith and Amherst colleges are starting to make the conversion.

LED lights cost more initially, but they last longer than other types, and have lower energy and maintenance costs. They have no mercury or other hazardous materials, go on instantaneously and may help fight crime by enhancing nighttime visibility on city streets.

“As their durability becomes more trusted, more people will switch,” said Easthampton Mayor Michael Tautznik. “LEDs are not the risky, oddball lights they were five years ago. In five years the technology will be such that they will be standard.”

Savvy homeowners have also caught on. Sales of LED lights at the Home Depot store in Hadley increased by 120 percent in 2012, said Dan Brown, who works in the electronics department.

“It seems like everyone is coming in to replace their compact fluorescents,” he said. “Some customers still say they’re too expensive, but this bulb here sells for $43 and it was $70 last year.”

Municipalities can save from 25 to 50 percent on electricity costs with LED streetlights, with greater savings if the current lights are the mercury vapor variety, according to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. There’s an additional 25 percent savings from reduced maintenance costs.

Streetlights and traffic lights accounted for about 7 percent of all municipal energy use in Massachusetts in fiscal 2011, with total costs estimated at $17 million, according to the department. Since state grants and financial assistance can enable cities and towns to make the conversion without using local tax dollars, it’s an atractive way to promote sustainability while cutting costs.

National movement

Boston undertook a multimillion-dollar project to replace all its 60,000 streetlights with LEDs in 2011. City officials projected they could cut electricity bills by as much as 60 percent, and each fixture would last about 15 years, compared to five for the older lights, according to the Boston Globe.

Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Seattle have also started making the conversion to LED streetlights.

Boston Police Superintendent Daniel Linskey said last summer that the LED lights may have contributed to a 9 percent decline in assaults, burglaries and car thefts in the first six months of 2012. But some city residents told the Globe the new lights produce glare that can impair the vision of elderly drivers, and the less diffuse lighting can make it harder for apartment dwellers to go to sleep.

No complaints

Tautznik said he has heard no such complaints in Easthampton. The city installed LED lights mostly on heavily trafficked streets and would have changed over all streetlights if it had enough money to do so, he said.

The city spent $227,740, most of which came from a state grant under the Green Communities Act and the rest from the electric utility, Tautznik said. He estimated that the new lights won’t need servicing for at least 10 years.

Amherst plans to use $302,000 in Green Communities Act money to install LED bulbs on streetlights in the first half of 2013, said Town Manager John Musante. The project, which was the top priority for use of the money, is part of a five-year energy plan and is projected to save taxpayers $40,000 a year on electricity costs, he said.

“It’s one of the primary ways we can reduce energy use and save money at the same time,” he said. “It’s a great advertisement for why being a green community matters.”

Northampton is looking for a qualified installer of LED bulbs on about 300 streetlights, said Christopher Mason, the city’s energy and sustainability officer. It is concentrating first on lights over parking lots, the bikepath, Pulaski Park and others owned by the city. The project is being paid for with money from Solar Renewable Energy Credits the city earned from installing photovoltaic panels at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, he said.

Many Northampton streetlights are owned by the utility and can’t be converted to LEDs because of contracted payments known as rate tariffs, Mason said. The Department of Energy Resources is working with electric utilities to overcome such barriers.

Smith plans

Smith College is starting an audit of its lighting this week and expects to install more LED lights, said Deirdre Manning, the sustainability director.

“I’ve seen the LED streetlights in Boston, and compared to the older ones, they’re much nicer,” she said. “They replicate the sun better, so there’s no funky orange glow or halo effect. It’s just a nice, constant great color light going in the direction you want it to, as opposed to lighting up the sky.”

Smith has installed LED lights in some elevators, retail space such as the bookstore and shops associated with the art museum and the mineral display cases in the science building, Manning said. The campus has converted some outside lights, such as those over gates, to LEDs. When buildings are renovated, such as the faculty offices in Dewey House were last year, they get LED lights, she said.

Smith and National Grid recently gave LED lights to students to replace the bulbs in study lights in dormitories, she said.

A typical $30 LED bulb, used for three hours a day, could last for 23 years, Manning said. They are fully dimmable, an improvement on compact fluorescents, and don’t generate as much heat, she said. As the costs continue to decline, conversion will make even more economic sense, she said.

Amherst College is installing LED lights in buildings that are being renovated, said James Brassord, the director of facilities.

“They’re good from the sustainability perspective, and they also have such long life it results in operational labor savings,” he said. “We think it’s a great investment, both in terms of sustainability and finances.”

The new science center will have exclusively LED lights, Brassord said. Seligman House, a dormitory on Northampton Road, is undergoing significant renovation, and LED lighting is included in the plan, he said.

Brassord said the financial payback on initial costs is not as compelling as he had hoped, so the college is replacing compact fluorescent lights only when necessary. But LEDs represent an emerging technology and their prices are coming down, he said.

“They will become more common,” he said. “The technology is now proving itself with economies of scale. And there’s a strong movement to migrate away from incandescents, which in many states can’t be purchased anymore.”


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