Is Going Green with LEDs Worth the Upfront Cost?

Thursday, January 7th 2010, 3:51 pm
By: News 9

By Jennifer Loren, The Oklahoma Impact Team

TULSA, Oklahoma -- As cities in the Sooner state scrutinize their bottom lines, some new, green technology is enticing them with promises of long-term savings. But is LED (Light Emitting Diodes) lighting worth the upfront cost?

In Tulsa, the new city mayor inherited a city so strapped for cash, officials turned off street lights over all the major highways. The mayor's Chief of Staff, Terry Simonson, said having dark highways is dangerous for drivers.

"Like when we had the snow at Christmas time it was particularly hard for people to see through the storm in the dark on the expressway," said Simonson.

Simonson and Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett think they've come up with a bright idea to turn the lights back on and save the city money. The city is applying for $750,000 in stimulus money to replace some current street lights with LED lights. If approved, the money would come from the Department of Energy and be part of the city's energy efficiency strategy.

"Which ever might be the darkest and the most traveled, why don't we start there? Either every light, every other light, lets just get started getting out of the darkness," said Simonson.

Using stimulus money up front is a relatively quick fix that could bring the city long-term benefits.

Current city street lights range from 100 to 400 watts. Tulsa has about 1,300 400-watt street lights. They use about 70 percent more energy than new LED street lights which are about 120 watts.

"This is a product that's going to revolutionize everything we know about lighting," said Fred Hannah, owner of Lektron Incorporated in Tulsa.

Lektron is the company that installed several LED lamps outside the Tulsa County Courthouse. Hannah said LEDs not only reduce energy consumption, they also reduce maintenance costs because the lights themselves last about twice as long. Some lights won't need to be changed for more than 20 years.

"Then the savings over a period of years is just incredible. It adds up to not hundreds of thousands of dollars; It adds up to millions of dollars," said Hannah.

Hannah said LED technology is getting better every day. In fact, he admits, there is a downside for cities getting in on LED technology at this stage. The initial cost is greater on the product. According to traffic engineers at the City of Tulsa each LED "cobra head" costs about $900. Standard street lights cost just $200 each.

That's one reason the City of Oklahoma City is not yet sold on LED lighting, although LEDs are being considered for their Downtown 180 streetscape project.

"You know there's not a whole lot of track record-type of information out there because it's relatively new," said Dennis Clowers, with the City of Oklahoma City

Oklahoma City engineers want to test the lights for a year before they commit to investing in them. They have concerns that the current technology is not good enough. One complaint with LEDs is that the light they shine is too directional. That means the city may have to buy more lights to cover the same amount of space.

"But if you have to use ten times as many lights then you're really not saving anything. So that's the kind of information we need to gather before we can make a decision," said Clowers.

Oklahoma City is not applying for stimulus money to fund LED lights.

Back in Tulsa, city administrators say time is not on their side. Stimulus money must be used now or there may not be a light at the end of the tunnel.

"The money would be gone. So we have a little window to do something with," said the Tulsa mayor's Chief of Staff, Terry Simonson.