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High Energy Costs have Communities Reconsidering their Lighting Technology

The engineer for the City of Fairbanks, Alaska recently conducted an energy audit and found that the cities' 2646 street lights cost $535,000 to operate each year. The number was staggering considering that the communities total electric bill was $880,000. Now the city engineer and other city officials are studying the situation and trying to determine what can be done to reduce the energy costs.

Should we just turn out the lights?

One option proposed is to simply eliminate many of the street lights, an option which the local law enforcement officials do not favor considering the established link between lighting and crime prevention. For a community like Fairbanks where daylight is scarce in winter time, this could mean a very dark city. Community officials and other interested parties also are considering the possibility of transition to LED lighting or other energy efficient lighting technology but fear that the price tag may be too steep. Communities like Fairbanks should not dismiss LED lighting technology as too expensive out of hand. LED lighting options are quickly becoming more readily available and cost-effective. The City of Ann Arbor, Michigan recently just retrofitted all of its street lights with LED units. That retrofit cost about $600,000--just a little more than Fairbanks paid to operate its street lights in one year. The City of Ann Arbor expects to save over $100,000 each year in energy costs. That would be about a 5 year payoff if the City of Fairbanks did the same thing.

Is LED lighting really more expensive?

This illustrates a good point of LED lighting technology. The general perception is that LEDs are expensive. This is true. An LED light is more expensive than a comparable incandescent or similar lamp when one considers the cost of the lamp itself along. However, in many (most) cases LEDs are cheap compared to incandescent and other older lighting technologies when one considers the overall cost savings, which include energy, replacement, and maintenance costs. In many situations, the return on investment is less than 5 years and the LED lamps can last for 10 years or more.

Should Christmas lights be eliminated to reduce energy costs?

Fairbanks is so concerned about its energy consumption that it is considering foregoing installing Christmas lights next year. There has been a lot of discussion about this as it is perceived by most as an "unnecessary" energy consuming luxury. In some respects it is hard to argue against that last point; however, its seems to me that his is simply taking a swipe at the low hanging fruit. We could eliminate all of the holiday lighting displays across the country and we would conserve a substantial amount of energy, but it would be a drop in the bucket when considering the big picture. And this is not to say that we should ignore small items like Christmas lights when looking for ways to conserve energy--the point is that eliminating Christmas lights in Fairbanks isn't going to trim much from the utility bill and it will trim a lot from the happiness and holiday spirit of the cities' residents.

At the end of the day, we need to look at the big picture when considering energy conservation and we also need to take an approach that is realistic and will be accepted by the majority. Most people will not accept simply turning out the lights or doing without their lighted Christmas tree for a few weeks each year. Fortunately, we have viable and cost-effective options in lighting that make these extreme measures unnecessary.