Municipality-Owned Streetlights to Save $8M Yearly

By ecoRI News staff

Rhode Island’s cash-strapped municipalities can now save some $8 million annually while providing better street-lighting services. In a unanimous vote July 25, the state Public Utilities Commission approved a sweeping reform for the state’s streetlight system.

“Streetlights use more energy than virtually any other municipal use,” said Marion Gold, commissioner of the Office of Energy Resources. “Now our towns can save energy because they will control their own lights.”

In a reform developed by the Washington County Regional Planning Council (WCRPC), the way streetlights are owned and operated will greatly change for the benefit of municipalities and the public.

Rhode Island cities and towns can now reduce their streetlight expenses by more than 40 percent annually, according to Jeff Broadhead, WCRPC’s executive director. “This ends more than a century of overly expensive utility-owned lighting,” he said.

The reform effort began nearly three years ago. The Municipal Streetlights Investment Act was passed and signed into law in 2013. Since becoming law last year, the statute has been before the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which had to deal with a complex series of documents needed to implement the law.

On July 25 the commission completed work on all aspects of the law except one — metering. Currently, streetlights have no meters, but their electric usage is estimated based on hours of darkness. However, newly available LED lights allow municipalities to dim lights late at night or turn some off. The controls also measure, more accurately than traditional meters, the amount of electricity used by each streetlight and report it to a central facility. The PUC has yet to rule on this issue.

Reform isn’t cheap. “We could only do it with the broad support of our towns, huge help from the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, and with generous grants from the Rhode Island Foundation and the Arpin Family Trust,” said Ella Whaley, WCRPC board president and president of the South Kingstown Town Council.

Under the newly enacted reform, municipalities can buy their streetlights from National Grid at a depreciated value — since the system has been in use for decades. The towns and cities will then contract with PRISM, the Partnership for R.I. Streetlights Management, which the WCRPC has formed to handle a collaborative private contract that will provide faster, more reliable and far less expensive repair and upgrade services that have previously been available. Towns and cities can also install the new LED lights using PRISM’s buying power.

“LED lights use 63 percent less electricity, which is great for budgets,” Broadhead said. “They also provide true-color lighting, so police officers can identify colors accurately, and public safety vehicles like fire trucks and ambulances will stand out. Motorists will also be able to see disabled vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians much more easily.”

Tom Gentz, WCRPC’s treasurer and president of the Charlestown Town Council, said, “Towns like Charlestown, that have ‘dark skies’ ordinances (anti-glare regulations), will be able to reduce the unwanted glare of National Grid’s yellowish sodium streetlights with lights that go off late at night and that have glare shields.”

Implementation of the new law will fall to PRISM. The partnership will be supported by nationally recognized experts whose sole job is to help municipalities save money. PRISM will be overseen by the municipalities involved and will use local contractors selected in a public process.

“The economy of scale will help all Rhode Island’s small towns with the buying power of our cities,” Broadhead said.

Dan Beardsley, executive director of the R.I. League of Cities and Towns, said, “It’s all about local control. There is no need for a private company to own the lights on any town’s Main Street.”