by: SUBMITTED - A before and after shot from Oregon City shows the difference between cobrahead streetlights, on the left, and new LED lights on the right. LED lighting is steadily transforming the way we view things, both indoors and out.

Short for “light emitting diode,” LED bulbs use a small semiconductor as a light source and have been used in electronic products since the 1960s. Early versions emitted low-intensity red light — think the red power indicator light on that dual-cassette tape deck you toted on your shoulder in the mid-1980s. Modern versions, however, span the visible light spectrum and into the ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths, often with much greater intensity than an incandescent bulb of similar or even greater wattage.

Now, they are coming to Wilsonville’s streets.

“There’s an interest in converting city streetlights to LED bulbs,” Wilsonville Public Works Director Delora Kerber told the city council last month.

Portland General Electric actually owns the streetlights in Wilsonville and many other towns, while the city owns the poles to which the lights are attached. The city contracts with the utility provider to maintain the lights in an arrangement from which both parties benefit.

With LED lighting, however, it’s more likely that one or the other will take over responsibility for the whole package, Kerber said.

“A few months back, PGE talked to city staff about their proposal for conversion,” she told councilors. “We have 2,300 odd lights total, and they were talking about 810 of those being converted on arterials roads.”

In June, neighboring city West Linn worked with PGE to convert 900 streetlights to LEDs, with estimated savings of $20,000 a year in the street fund. Also, in October, nearby Lake Oswego agreed to convert thousands of streetlights to LEDs beginning in January.

If Wilsonville and PGE move forward down that road, Kerber added, either the company or the city would need to both own and maintain the lights because of the higher costs involved.

Mayor Tim Knapp noted the city long ago chose to purchase the streetlight poles and eventually upgraded worn-out wooden poles with new fiberglass or aluminum versions.

“The city invested on the front end on longer-life poles with the assumption the city would benefit from longer life and lower cost to the city,” Knapp said. “A change to saying, ‘Well, we’ll let someone else do it,’ would be a different direction and, personally, I would like to see some mathematical analysis of what the return is on what we have done in the past and what we’ll do in the future.”

Knapp said he already can envision different options beyond those provided by PGE.

“We could contract with someone else, for example, for the LED conversions,” he said.

He also noted that the growing number of “acorn” lights, named for the shape of the fixtures that resemble old-style gas lamps, within the city are not being addressed.

“I know from seeing vendors at trade shows that acorn lights are available now in LED,” Knapp said. “So I’m not real clear that the options we’re being given by PGE at this point include all the choices.”

City Attorney Mike Kohlhoff also noted that selling off the city’s investment in street lighting would at least result in revenue equal to nearly a decade’s worth of maintenance.

“The payment we’d get (for gear) would last eight to 10 years worth of maintenance,” he said.

“One of the advantages of LEDs is that they require far less maintenance and far fewer trips up the pole, far fewer man hours,” Knapp said. “So, from our point of view, I’d like to see us analyze what would happen if the city continued to own them and what would be the cost of long-term ownership and maintenance as compared to one of these other scenarios.”

That, Kerber replied, is already taking place. An evaluation of the issue by public works staff is in “full swing,” she said, and will include talks with “various vendors and parties.”

“We’ll do an evaluation and internally decide what’s best,” Kerber said. “I don’t have a set time frame. A couple of months, how about that?”

Kerber added that a public outreach effort would be undertaken to determine opinion on the matter, such as the issue of lighting color.

“With LED, I noticed when I was in Kona they had lights that were not white,” said Councilor Scott Starr. “They were more amber-ish; I guess that’s for light pollution.”

That, noted City Manager Bryan Cosgrove, is part of the national Dark Skies Initiative spearheaded by the University of Texas and its McDonald Observatory.

“When LEDs came on the scene it was a stark, bright white light,” Kerber said. “It depends on the wattage. You can have a softer version, and it’ll still be a more crisp light than the sodium vapor bulbs. There are ranges, and that’s what becomes important when you design it, having the right fixtures and right lights.”

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