The immediate outlook is dark for an idea to switch Mount Airy streetlights to the better-quality LED format, as illuminated by a new study on the plan’s feasibility.
Two members of the city board of commissioners, Jon Cawley and Steve Yokeley, first suggested such a switch more than a year ago, seeing it as a way save taxpayers big bucks with less energy consumption.
However, research by city Public Services Director Jeff Boyles shows that wouldn’t be the case under existing circumstances.
“It doesn’t appear there’s going to be any savings to the city,” Boyles said when presenting his findings to the board during a meeting Tuesday.
The main factor surrounds Mount Airy’s inability to own the streetlights, according to Boyles’ presentation. It revealed that the lights typically are possessed by companies such as Duke Energy and Progress Energy, which are paid a monthly fee by municipalities for their use.
An LED, or light-emitting diode, is a semiconductor lighting source that allows LED streetlights to normally produce the same amount, or higher, luminance as traditional lighting, while requiring only half of the power consumption.
One thing that sparked Cawley’s and Yokeley’s interest in converting to LED lighting here was a situation in Asheville, which recently was allowed to own its LED streetlights in contrast to the typical arrangement with power companies.
Upfitting that city’s lights with high-efficiency LEDs saved $130,000 in one year, according to a progress report on the project whereby Asheville was allowed to own lights powered and maintained by its electrical supplier.
But Asheville is serviced by a different provider than Mount Airy and therein lies the rub, according to Boyles’ study.
Although Duke and Progress merged, Duke Energy Progress (commonly known as Progress) and Duke Energy Carolinas (Duke) are separate companies, with Mount Airy being part of the Duke service area.
Duke does not allow customer-owned streetlights, despite requests from larger cities for that, and has no plans to do so, which Boyles said eliminates the possibility of Mount Airy realizing possible benefits from such ownership.
Progress, which serves Asheville, also is phasing out the ownership option, the public services director said.
However, a bright side to the situation involves plans by Duke Energy to gradually switch to LED lighting on its own.
Boyles added that Mount Airy has a combination of mercury vapor (MV) lights, which make up about 55 percent of the total, and high pressure sodium (HPS) lights, 45 percent. MV fixtures were banned in the U.S. in 2005 and bulbs for that format will be in 2016, he said.
Mount Airy now has one LED location, at the end of East Church Street, where that lighting was installed on an experimental basis, Boyles said, with a noticeable difference in quality resulting.
Duke is planning to replace MV streetlights that are unusable with the LED variety, and all other MV streetlights in the coming years, he reported.
The company further is interested in switching out HPS lighting with LED lights, but no firm schedule or timetable has been announced for that. Boyles said there has been talk that this could be accompanied by a one-time $50 fee to municipalities if an HPS fixture is less than 20 years old.
“But Duke seemed fairly committed to getting LED here,” Boyles said of his contacts with the company. “Duke eventually wants to go to all-LED.”
After learning about the timing involved, Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said it appears Mount Airy will “wait a lifetime” before being switched to LED lighting.
“A lot of it is still in flux,” Boyles said of the changing spectrum with streetlights.
For purposes of comparison, Boyles said the monthly cost for streetlights in a typical residential subdivision is $7.46 for MV lighting, $9.60 to $10.61 for HPS and $9.02 for LED, for which costs “have come down exponentially” in the past 10 years.
At this point, any savings from eliminating the high pressure sodium streetlights would be undermined by the larger expense of phasing out the older, cheaper mercury vapor type, he concluded.
That would make better-quality lighting the only advantage of a wholesale switchover, according to Boyles’ study.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.