Streetlights Bill Offers Municipal Savings

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — For three years, the Washington County Regional Planning Council (WCRPC) has been trying to give control of local streetlights back to the 10 towns it represents. The collaborative, and the rest of the state's municipalities, may be getting its wish as new legislation (H5935 and S836) in the General Assembly seeks to make municipal ownership a reality.

The two bills allow Rhode Island municipalities to take ownership of streetlights in order to reduce their electricity and maintenance costs.

Rhode Island spends more than $14 million a year to power and maintain streetlights. According to the WCRPC, Washington County spends about $1.2 million annually to maintain its streetlights — about $750,000 goes toward maintenance. The WCRPC estimates it can cut that expense to about $250,000. The remaining $350,000 can be reduced through using energy-saving light bulbs. Overall, the payback should take between one and three years, according to the council.

“There’s an enormous opportunity to do something differently,” said Jeff Broadhead, WCRPC’s executive director.

The current system doesn't offer financial or environmental incentives for National Grid to upgrade to energy-efficient light bulbs. Years of rule changes have made it a complicated process, Broadhead said. “Its nobody’s fault," he said. "It’s just the way the system evolved. There’s just a better way to do it now.”

Streetlights don’t have meters. Municipalities pay a fee, or tariff, based on an estimated cost for traditional light bulbs, as well as the cost of maintenance. The legislation would allow the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to create a new tariff for the fixture service and new rates for low-energy lighting.

Under the program, National Grid would sell the streetlights to cities and towns based the cost, minus depreciation. 

National Grid has endorsed the legislation, saying it’s willing to part with the contracts in order to focus on its core business of power delivery. "We have worked with the Senate and House sponsors of the streetlight legislation, which is enabling in nature," National Grid spokesman David Graves said. "It does not mandate that cities and towns purchase the streetlights in their locality, but it does provide a vehicle to own."

The legislation is modeled after a 1997 Massachusetts law that allowed municipal streetlamp ownership. Connecticut also permits streetlamp ownership. So far, 70 cities and towns in Massachusetts have made the switch. The average savings were between 15 percent and 50 percent.

The prospect of owning streetlights is good news for municipalities. East Providence looked at buying the maintenance contracts for it streetlamps several years ago, but found the project too expensive. In January, the city simply turned off 1,000 streetlights to save money.

Steve Coutu, head of East Providence's Department of Public Works, welcomes the new legislation. “It certainly would be helpful because it’s a significant expense," he said.

The PUC must also approve the legislation if it becomes law. A recent change in the legislation requires that a city or town buy all of their streetlights, not just a limited number.

House sponsor Deborah Ruggiero, D-Middletown/Jamestown, said each municipality must crunch the numbers. "A city or town will have to do a cost analysis, because once the leave they cannot go back."