2016-12-02 / Front Page

Officials weigh streetlight conversion

Towns now have three options when it comes to controlling lighting
By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

Scarborough officials are taking inventory of streetlights, including those along Route 1, to determine if purchasing the lights back from Central Maine Power would be cost effective. (Michael Kelley photo) Scarborough officials are taking inventory of streetlights, including those along Route 1, to determine if purchasing the lights back from Central Maine Power would be cost effective. (Michael Kelley photo) The towns of Falmouth and Rockland, as well as the cities of South Portland and Biddeford are on the verge of outfitting their streetlights with LED bulbs and converting them from Central Maine Power ownership to local control.

As part of its push to be more energy efficient, Scarborough town officials are mulling whether a similar approach would work in town.

The Legislature passed a bill in 2013 that allowed local municipalities the option of controlling and managing their streetlights instead of Central Maine Power (CMP), but gave the Maine Public Utilities Commission the authority to determine the final rules on how the process would work.

“It required CMP to be receptive to the towns’ interest in purchasing the street lights. There are, as you would expect, some details associated with how that would work,” Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall said.

The new law gives municipalities three options: do nothing and continue to lease the lights from the utility companies; purchase the lights and have the utility companies continue maintenance or take over both the control and maintenance of lights.

Switching over to locally controlled lights could make sense for Scarborough, or any other community looking into it, on a number of levels. It saves energy, creates more options for fixture selection and design and offers greater flexibility regarding placement and removal.

Hall said Scarborough has been “mulling” the topic of buying back for over for a year.

“It’s a pretty hot topic for most communities. Most are kicking the tires and evaluating it,” Hall said

The only streetlights that the town would purchase are those in the right of way and those that the town already pays for. Purchasing the streetlights, Hall argued would give the town more control over them. Hall said unlike individuals do with the lights in their homes and businesses, the town does not pay CMP for how much electricity is used. Rather town pays CMP a flat rate based on the type of fixture it is. The frustrating part, he said, is the town pays for the streetlights whether they burn or not.

Scarborough Public Works Director Mike Shaw said the town has allocated $186,000 in the street light budget for fiscal year 2017, which runs through June. So far, he said $61,121 has been spent this year.

The cost to purchase the town’s 1,000-plus streetlights and convert them to LED hasn’t been estimated yet, but Hall indicates it is not likely to be cheap.

“There is quite an upfront capital investment, but the theory is you would save in the long run because of reduced energy costs,” he said.

That is what the communities of Biddeford, Falmouth, Rockland and South Portland are finding. According to an Oct. 6 presentation Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore, South Portland Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser and Rockland City Councilor Larry Pritchet gave to the Maine Municipal Association, Falmouth pays $97,590 currently for the utility-owned streetlights to operate. The cost for town-owned and operated lights would be approximately $53,380 less, meaning the payback on purchasing the 595 streetlights from CMP and converting them to LED would be just more than 5.5 years. The return on investment for Rockland, by comparison, would be slightly more than 3.5 years.

Poore said LED lights were chosen because they use less energy and are easier to maintain. The failure rate of LED lights, he said, is “very low.” Some bulbs, he noted, can last 20 years.

Poore said chances are most municipal streetlights are not already outfitted with LED lights, meaning towns purchasing back streetlights would have to make that change, if desired. The cost to do so, he said, is not what it once was.

“With today’s LED technology and its reliability and so many places manufacturing them, the price point is down quite a bit and could be advantageous for communities,” Poore said.

While LED bulbs use less energy, which in time saves money, Poore said the biggest way municipalities save when they buy back their streetlights is they no longer have to pay a fee to CMP to operate the light.

Poore has been working on municipal street light conversion since 2002 when he was Kennebunkport’s town manager and the town wanted a different type of light bulb than was offered. A year ago Falmouth joined with Rockland, Biddeford and South Portland to put out a request for proposals to companies interested in helping them plan and implement the streetlight purchases and in September, the four communities chose RealTerm Energy for the job.

Poore said no lights have been purchased yet. Right now the communities are undergoing an “investment grade audit,” which takes into account the type and placement of each light in the four communities. Falmouth, he said, is paying special attention to intersections and “key areas where pedestrians” are.

The design work will be done over the winter. The lights are expected to be purchased in spring and installed over summer and fall.

The key to making a streetlight switchover work, Poore said, is to make sure the streetlights selected are appropriate for a municipality.

“You really need to pay attention to what it is you are going to design and buy,” he said, adding it is tough to bounce back from purchasing the wrong type of fixture or hiring the wrong contractor.

As Scarborough irons out the details about whether to take advantage of the program, an analysis of its stock of streetlights is underway. This work, Hall said, will be the top energy savings priority for Kerry Strout, the town’s new sustainability coordinator, who started this week.

“Our current inventory shows approximately 1,300 streetlights in town. We are currently inventorying all street lights to determine exact location, wattage, type and other attributes to update our (geographic information system) inventory,” Public Works Director Mike Shaw wrote in an email to the Leader. “This inventory is a first step to fully understand our current lighting status.”

The effort is also aimed at determining if the location of streetlights still makes sense.

“If we can outright eliminate some of them, that might make some sense,” Hall said. “The inventory will help with that.”

Hall said while most of the new streetlights in town come via new subdivisions, the town does get requests from residents about additional, or fewer, streetlights around their residences. The town, Hall said, typically does not honor the requests of individual homeowners without the backing of others in the neighborhood and has long-standing criteria to deal with where streetlights are placed. According to the criteria, streetlights are placed at street intersections; complex road situations; overhead traffic signals and railroad crossings, as well as near schools or public facilities; public parking areas; bus stops and fire alarm boxes. Per the criteria, streetlights can also be placed at the end of dead-end streets, at mid-block locations and at intervals of between 450 and 600 feet in developed areas.

The criteria, however, was adopted by the town council in 1980 and is something Shaw said may need to be updated “to reflect changing time and technology.”

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at news@scarboroughleader.com.

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