Now there’s a bright idea

Russell Wangersky
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On a quiet weeknight next to Quidi Vidi Lake, there were only an handful of cars zipping through the pools of light underneath the streetlights.

The drivers probably don’t notice that it’s a new row of taller telephone poles, or that the poles have been moved back away from the curb. They probably also don’t notice that the profile of the streetlights has changed; that, instead of being the traditional arced high-pressure sodium light mounting known in the industry as the “cobra-head,” the lights are flatter and broader.

One thing the drivers might have noticed is that 18 of the streetlights are a different colour — white instead of the familiar orange — or that they seemed brighter.

What they almost certainly

didn’t see is the savings.

One small string of the lights — using light-emitting diodes (LEDs) instead of high-pressure sodium — could be about to drastically cut the city’s electric bill. And those savings, both in power use and in power bills, could help across a province that’s currently forecasting an electrical power shortfall in just a few years.

Many lights

The city has 11,361 streetlights — and, in 2010, budgeted nearly

$3.8 million to keep them serviced and lit.

Province-wide, there are many, many more.

Why make the change? Try this information from a 2010 Science Daily article:

“Engineers in the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation based in (the University of Pittsburgh’s) Swanson School of Engineering compared LED streetlights to the country’s two most common lamps — the high-pressure sodium (HPS) lamps found in most cities and metal halide lamps akin to those in stadiums-and the gas-based induction bulb, another emerging technology billed as bright and energy efficient. The team reported that LEDs may carry a formidable price tag, but in comparison to HPS and metal halide lamps consume half the electricity, last up to five times longer, and produce more light.”

(Interesting, the study also points out that Pittsburgh has four times as many streetlights as St. John’s, more than 40,000 streetlights, yet curiously pays just slightly more than we do, US$4.2 million, for their electricity and servicing. But that’s another column.)

Scores of U.S. cities are in

the midst of making the LED changeover, using U.S. federal government stimulus money and expecting to see huge savings on their power bills.

Using less power

The numbers vary, depending on who you’re talking to — the range runs anywhere from 40 per cent to 80 per cent less electricity to run the new lights.

Some comparisons show high-pressure sodium lights using as much as 1,204 kWh a year, while comparable LED streetlights draw just 505 kWh — a lot depends on how far North (or South) you are, and how long your lights are on.

Use the 1,204-to-505 numbers in St. John’s, and a full retrofit could reduce electricity consumption by well over seven million kWh every year.

Convert that to the amount of power needed to run the lights for that period of time, and you’d end up with just under a megawatt of power. Not a huge number, perhaps, but far from insignificant.

Testing the numbers

A U.S. Department of Energy study on streetlights in Palo Alto, Calif., from June 2010 said, “Measurement results from the demonstration project show that LED luminaires produce more uniform light output than that of HPS and induction luminaires. LED luminaires also have much better cutoff on the curbside of the streetlight luminaire, resulting in significantly reduced light trespass onto residential properties. Of the three systems (induction, HPS and LED), the LED used the least energy (44 per cent reduction compared to the baseline HPS).”

Another U.S. Department of Energy study in Portland, Ore. — where streetlights were operational for 4,380 hours — saw regular sodium lights using 525 kWh of electricity, with LED lights using just 233 kWh. That’s a 56 per cent decrease.

Payback time

There are streetlight manufacturers that argue you can recoup the cost of new LED lights in as little as 17 months — but at the moment, that may be hopelessly optimistic.

U.S. Department of Energy reports say the payback could take as long as a decade, but it would come.

Not only that, but there are other savings as well. LEDs have a 10 to 15-year lifespan, compared to three to five years for high-pressure sodium — that means fewer hours replacing lights, and fewer new lights to purchase.

The LED lights can also be set for varying — and changing — levels of light at different times through their nightly cycle, something high-pressure sodium simply can’t do, and something that can save even more in power costs.

They can even be equipped — for an increased capital cost — to generate some of their own power using solar generation.

The city says The Boulevard project is expected to cut electrical use, per light, by around 59 per cent — the first units are going in to test maintenance claims, and apparently, there will be around 300 of the lights installed.

Speeding it up

Since electricity use in this province is about to reach some sort of crisis point, you might be thinking things could move a little faster.

A forward-thinking provincial government, for example, might be willing to front the money to Newfoundland Power for streetlight purchases and retrofits, and have municipalities pay it back from municipal savings in reduced electrical bills.

A forward-looking government might also look at smart meters, at off-peak power pricing and at a feed-in tariff system that would pay smaller producers to get money for putting power back into the grid.

Just like LED streetlights, those are being tried in many other jurisdictions.

Maybe if we did that, a static-sized or shrinking, aging population wouldn’t be increasing its electrical consumption every single year — and wouldn’t need to take on billions in new debt and massive power rate hikes to make up for an electrical power shortfall.

Conservation — what a concept.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: U.S. Department of Energy, Mascaro Center, University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering Newfoundland Power

Geographic location: Quidi Vidi Lake, U.S., Pittsburgh Palo Alto, Calif. Portland, Ore.

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Recent comments

  • Cyril Rogers
    November 14, 2011 - 17:00

    Add to this power equation recent reports out of Quebec that Quebec Hydro will have massive quantities of surplus power for the next decade and likely for a long time as shale gas gains traction; if so, we have a major problem with the cost of MF. Yes, it can be done but will be so expensive as to cost us billions in subsidies if we are to be competitive with Hydro Quebec. Don't be surprised if Nova Scotia gets a deal from Quebec Hydro that it can't refuse. Already Quebec is reported to have offered them power at one-third the actual cost of MF power. Yes. John, I know it is supposed to be for our own use but we will have so much excess capacity that is enormously expensive that we will find ourselves spilling most of it over the dam. This will make the actual amount produced that much more expensive. To get back to Mr. Wangersky's premise: let's try conservation and, while we are learning to conserve, find small-scale projects that will achieve the objective of ensuring the electrical needs of the Island are met. It can be done and there are a number of options, with newer technology, to meet those needs. If a power line ever becomes necessary, we will eventually be able to tap into power from the Upper Churchill.

  • Cyril Rogers
    November 14, 2011 - 09:31

    Mr. Wangersky....conservation and using more energy efficient appliances, lights, etc. is the way of the future. Our government and NALCOR are stuck in the grandiose schemes of the past but there is no real solution there. We must look forward to, and actively promote, wind, conservation, metering, and so forth to preserve power and minimize the impact on the environment. Despite the increase in population density in the NEA in the past 10 years, there has been very little increase in actual demand and we can do even better with some of these efforts in place. Power to Long Harbour can be realized through other developments that will allow for the eventual closure of Holyrood since they don't intend to phase it out for several years down the road anyway. As for Labrador, we already have 300 MW of power that was recalled from the Upper Churchill, to the best of my knowledge, and is being sold on the spot market. Surely some of this power could be diverted to Labrador industrial sites if needed. John Smith and others are free to correct me if I am wrong...but only with the facts!

  • God Guard Thee NL
    November 14, 2011 - 07:16

    John Smith, you can hope all you want, but jobs and industry are not going to flock to NL for higher than average electricity prices. We had tons of energy to spare for decades and attracted nothing. Your suggestion that we blow a ton of money to build new capacity in the hopes of attracting new industry is silly. All that it will do is create a few short term jobs and raise everyone's power rates forever to produce power that we can't use. Those houses on the NEA are twice as energy efficient as the houses in other areas that are being shuttered due to dieing communities, they will actually result in a net saving on electricity. Your IOC reference is a red herring, there will be no Muskrat Falls power used in Labrador. Wangersky has it right, we can avoid spending billions unnecessarily just by wasting less (and saving money doing so). The money saved could be used for things that actually benefit all citizens of the province instead of the chosen few at NALCOR.

  • W Bagg
    November 13, 2011 - 14:59

    build it and they will come hey Mr. Smith.........we haven't had a significant populion increase here and the economy is booming now..........facts and trends are we aren't likley to have any significant pop increases, neighboring markets are getting power cheaper than we supply our selves now. We should wait to develop Muskrat. We are going to build it for 17 cents a kw/h and sell it for 10 cents a kw/h, ya don't need to be very smart to see the market isn't here YET. It will be but not NOW. Not to mention with every other mjor construction project we'd over pay on labour by 25% over what they are forecasting now. Vale can't get enough o fill next years projections............lay low, it's money in the bank for the future.

  • David
    November 12, 2011 - 14:03

    In a place that is: a) hell bent on developing enough new electricity, at any unkonwn capital cost whatsoever, to suply this island with more "cheap" (yikes!) power than it could ever possibly use, and b) an ISLAND that has no basic recycling system, or even a viable landfill system figured out (!?) ---- well, we should all get chuffed up about LED lights around Quid Vidi? Excuse me if I consider this article a satire piece.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    November 12, 2011 - 13:04

    Yes John, and Vale's 90 MW is 4.5 % of our existing "NET" capacity of 1,958 MW (about 1/3rd of which is UNUSED every year). So, let's borrow BILLIONS of dollars so that we can increase our UNUSED capacity form 1/3rd to about 1/2. ---- and increase that UNUSED capacity by VERY HIGH COST power, power which is 3 or 4 times more expensive on a needed, per unit basis than island sourced power (even Holyrood's). That cheap (????) energy will do great things for our business climate and competitiveness. Wake up, John.

  • John Smith
    November 12, 2011 - 10:35

    So all that expense and work to save one megawatt? The Vale plant alone will use 90 megawatts, just as a comparison. Cutting back, and conserving is a nice idea, but it certainly is not the way you grow your economy, or stabalize your electricity rates. We don't want to be that aging dormant society Russell. Some of us hope that we will grow, grow our industry, grow our population. There will be openings for 70,000 jobs here over the next few years, with three megaprojects happening at the same time. They just released stats that showed three billion invested in housing in NEA over the last ten years, a staggering number. The development and expansion of IOC in Labrador will also require additional sources of power. We are currently paying 17 cents a KWH now for Holyrood power, which pollutes and keeps us hobbled. The answer is not to conserve, but to utilize what we have available to us. We need jobs and industry and growth. Not some dupe telling us to turn off the lights and pull the covers over our heads.

    • Dave
      November 12, 2011 - 15:45

      Typical wasteful Newfoundland mentality John Smith.