Cost to keep lights on will go from $600,000 a year to $100,000 with new program

In yet another green effort to save energy and money, Gresham is starting a major streetlight replacement project, which will convert the city’s streetlights to high-efficiency LED bulbs.

The move will save approximately $500,000 a year in costs.

Cities across the nation — even the globe — are turning to light-emitting diode lights as a way to save money and the environment. Portland General Electric is switching 25,000 of its lights in five counties and 47 cities — including Sandy and Estacada — to this more energy-efficient option this year and throughout 2014.

Portland is drafting a five-year plan to make the same switch by 2018, following the likes of big cities such as Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, San Jose, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas and Chicago.

“They last longer, use less energy and the light looks better,” said Peter Koonce, Portland’s division manager for signals and streetlights.

John Dorst, who recently retired as Gresham’s deputy director for the Department of Environmental Services, couldn’t agree more. “This is actually a great thing for Gresham,” Dorst said. “It is more sustainable economically and environmentally.”

This spring, Gresham budgeted to trade its traditional high-power sodium lights, which cast a yellowish tint, for the brighter light of LEDs. The latter also are considered more “dark sky friendly” because the yellow haze from traditional lights makes it harder to see the stars.

Although Gresham considered making the move years ago with earlier LED lights, those models weren’t quite up to the specifications and power savings to justify the initial investment needed to convert over, Dorst said.

While the prior generation of LED bulbs lost about 50 percent of their brightness over a seven-year period, they now last a whopping 20 years. Plus they use about one-half to one-third of the energy, all while casting that crisper, brighter, higher contrast light.

Gresham residents can expect to see the new, brighter streetlight bulbs shining bright beginning next year. Installation starts just after Jan. 1 but will be phased in over three years.

All 8,000 of the city’s streetlights will switch over to LED bulbs. The city also will replace the poles of an estimated 1,300 of those streetlights.

Once the LED conversion takes place, Gresham will maintain its own streetlight system instead of contracting with PGE for maintenance.

But because the new lights last so long and use much less energy, those maintenance and energy costs are expected to plummet from $600,000 a year to $100,000 once the program is fully implemented.

Although the switch comes at no cost to those in Clackamas County or the cities where PGE is converting to LED, because Gresham owns its streetlights, the city is using a $7.5 million bond to pay the costs of converting.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, said Elizabeth McCann, Gresham’s senior financial analyst.

Interest rates are at record lows, plus 20-year bonds the city sold qualify for an interest subsidy from the federal government, so the feds will pay part of the loan’s interest.

“Without the interest subsidy, we couldn’t have financed the conversion,” McCann said. “The interest rate has really made this possible.”

Then again, the city couldn’t afford not to change over, Dorst said.

Gresham is four years away from having no money left in its streetlight fund. With power costs rising higher than the revenue generated to keep those streetlights on — from utility license fees on electricity and natural gas bills in Gresham — the fund would have reached zero by fiscal year 2017-2018.

“That imbalance between revenue and expenses is going to turn around with the LED conversion,” Dorst said. “So not only are we saving money and helping the environment, the streetlight fund will be financially sustainable.”

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