To lower costs, try upgrading streetlights

Turning down the Charlotte region's energy meter will take thousands of creative actions of businesses, government and individuals. Here's an idea that could be mounted rapidly and showcase the region as a national leader pulling together all its local governments – and top businesses – as sponsors.

The issue is street lighting.

Look around any evening: You'll see streetlights, plus lights all over shopping areas, auto dealers and big box territory, up and down streets lined with businesses. The lighting spreads and overlaps and glows into the sky. It shines whether anyone's around or not, dusk to dawn.

Here's the idea: Upgrade the streetlight system in the triangular area anchored by Charlotte, Gastonia and Concord, with an energy-efficient, intelligent streetlight network. In an area with a population of 1.65 million, it would reduce the need for electricity by 50 percent or more.

As calculated by a colleague, Robert Grow of the Washington Board of Trade, there would be 92,487 streetlights in this zone. At an average rate of 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, they generate an estimated energy bill of $5,622,796 a year.

Changing to energy-efficient lamps – including new ballasts and control systems – would cost $310 per light, or $28,484,220. That's a big number. But tally up the annual energy savings from reduced draw on electricity, lower maintenance costs and reduced carbon emissions (valuing carbon dioxide emissions at $30 a metric ton). It amounts to $5,424,645. The investment is paid off in 5.3 years. Then the savings go on and on.

Using LEDs in the upgrade would provide even greater efficiencies.

Oslo, Norway, has switched to an intelligent streetlight network, dropping its electricity use by more than 50 percent. Some U.S. cities – Ann Arbor, Mich., Fayetteville, Ark., and others – have gone for total LED lighting. But no U.S. metro region has.

Imagine this region's two councils of governments – the Centralina COG and Catawba Regional COG, already partners in a widely hailed CONNECT effort – securing funding for all the local governments to move into the LED era. More than likely they could get a local bank to bond the effort, getting its payoff from the municipalities' savings.

Then the Charlotte Chamber, or maybe the Charlotte Regional Partnership, could work to persuade member companies to do the same with their privately owned night lighting – perhaps with a creative financing plan, too.

The region would save energy, save money and set a national model.