Streetlights

(from Maine Townsman, January 2004)
By Mike Laberge, Freelance Writer

    When municipal leaders in Kennebunkport wanted to replace aging streetlights three years ago, they hoped to save money – and curb light pollution – by using lower-watt bulbs. In suggesting the change, they reasoned that vehicle headlights would make up the difference at night.

       Like most communities in central and southern Maine, Kennebunkport leases most of its streetlights from Central Maine Power Co. But when town officials approached CMP, seeking 35-watt lights in some areas, the utility balked. Citing liability concerns, the company would only offer new 50-watt replacements, which municipal officials argued would radiate far more light than the town’s current incandescent streetlights.

       “The quality of a town’s night environment has an awful lot to do with the lighting,” said Peter Talmage, chairman of the town’s 25-year-old lighting committee, which sets standards for outdoor lighting in the coastal town.

        “Hopefully at some point, we will come to a compromise,” he said. “We feel that to raise the level of lighting is just a waste of energy.”

       The case reflects the reality of dealing with large electric utilities: Municipalities either must maintain their own streetlights, which can be expensive, or rent from the utility and sacrifice local control. Although utilities in recent years have offered more lighting choices, driven largely by customer demand, municipal leaders say the companies remain in the driver’s seat.

       “There’s an impression that there’s not much we can do with the leased lights,” said Michael Duguay, director of economic and community development in Augusta, which each year spends more than $300,000 annually to lease about 2,200 streetlights from CMP. “At what point do you balance security with some significant costs?”

       Most municipalities lease their streetlights from the state’s electric power utilities. For monthly per-light fees, the companies handle maintenance, depreciation and liability concerns, among other things. Increasingly, however, municipalities are purchasing decorative streetlights as part of community revitalization projects, preferring to spend thousands of dollars to obtain exactly the types of lights they want.

       “I feel strongly about the idea that you don’t have to conform to the lemmings approach to lighting,” said Don Willard, town manager of Raymond, which recently spent thousands to purchase 60 antique-looking lights for its business district.

LESSON FROM ROCKPORT

       Willard’s attitude grew from his tenure as manager of the coastal town of Rockport, which in the 1990s took on CMP – and won. Two decades ago, the utility began installing high-pressure sodium lights in municipalities throughout Maine. The company considered them less expensive and more reliable, which reduced maintenance costs and improved the utility’s bottom line. But for leaders of Rockport, the replacement program carried one ugly problem: The high-pressure sodium lights, which emit a yellow-orange glow, initially were available only in fixtures resembling a cobra’s head. Town officials found the new design unacceptable and so kept their incandescent bulbs and radial-wave fixtures, most dating from 1919.

       “They had this one-size-fits-all approach to municipal lighting,” said Willard, who managed the town for 15 years. “I thought the cobra-head lights looked more at home on the New Jersey Turnpike than in the town of Rockport.”

       Years ago, municipal leaders sought to avoid the expense of replacing the town’s more than 100 streetlights. Later, as the town drew more well-to-do residents, leaders again resisted pressure to replace the old fixtures, but for a different reason. “People became attached to the aesthetics of the old lights,” Willard said.

       CMP’s interest in replacing the old streetlights was understandable. They were inefficient and prone to failure. Although Rockport officials agreed, they resisted the pressure to accept new fixtures they disliked. The town ultimately won the test of wills in 1998 by holding out until the company agreed to stock the classic-style replacement fixtures. “I thought that eventually they would come around to our way of thinking, because they did not want to maintain an antiquated streetlight system,” said Willard, now town manager in Raymond. 

       Brenda Hendrickson, program manager for CMP, said the company was willing to work with Rockport. But finding lights that met local tastes and the regulations governing the utility took time. “You can’t just put anything up on a pole,” Hendrickson said. “We had to find a vendor who would meet our specifications. It’s not an overnight process.”

       In Rockport’s case, the new program meant obtaining new streetlights that joined the latest lighting technology with more traditional radial-wave fixtures. CMP began installing 150 new streetlights in Rockport in the fall of 1998. “You had a merger of the old and the new,” Willard said, adding that the arrangement placed new lights in the classic radial-wave fixtures, preserving the town’s character.

       Hendrickson said CMP now offers several styles of fixtures in a variety of wattages, ranging from 50 at the low end to 1,000 at the top. Communities also can choose between high-pressure sodium and white metal-halide lights. “What we’ve been asked to do is to get a basic set of fixtures that seems to be most popular in our service area,” said Hendrickson, who declined to disclose the amount of annual revenue CMP derives from streetlights. “We have to try to serve the majority of our customers.”

       The utility increasingly is being asked to replace high-pressure sodium lights with white metal halide lights. “It’s customer-driven,” Hendrickson said, adding that car dealers especially prefer the newer lights.

       Nothing is stopping communities from buying their own fixtures. “Municipalities can have their own lighting systems, if they so choose,” she said. “They would just be responsible for maintenance costs.”

LOCAL CONTROL

       Increasingly, communities are doing just that – largely in conjunction with infrastructure improvements. In Augusta, city leaders last year purchased 28 decorative streetlights as part of a downtown revitalization project. The $99,000 price tag covered decorative poles and fixtures designed to bathe the downtown district in the white light of metal-halide bulbs while giving it an old-fashioned look. The city pays CMP only for the electricity.

       Last year, the town of Raymond purchased 60 period-looking streetlights as part of ongoing improvements to state Route 302. The town placed the gooseneck lights along sidewalks in the central business district, enhancing the look of the region. The community spent several thousand dollars per light, but Willard, who left Rockport to manage the Cumberland County community three years ago, believes the lights are worth the price.

       And Kennebunkport, now at odds with CMP over replacement lighting, also maintains about 20 of its own lights in the village area known as Dock Square.

       But in Hallowell, just south of the capital, municipal leaders might move in the opposite direction. The antique-looking streetlights in the city’s historic downtown are outdated, and spare parts are becoming hard to find. Rather than buying replacement lights, the city is considering renting reproduction lights from CMP, according to City Councilor Phil Lindley. The company now offers greater variety, giving communities the option of having the utility handle maintenance and upkeep – in return for monthly rental fees. The lights “are designed to be compatible with historic districts,” Lindley said. 

       The City of Portland is doing the same, preferring to lease new antique-looking lights from CMP for the downtown area rather than incur the considerable expense of buying and maintaining streetlights. “We have taken advantage of some of the newer styles of streetlights they offer,” said Peter DeWitt, a spokesman for the city.

       Each year, Maine’s largest city spends about $1 million on streetlights, most of them leased from CMP. That amounts to less than 1 percent of the $250 million annual municipal budget. Although the city always is looking for efficiencies, municipal leaders have found that leasing lights from CMP makes the most sense. “When I handle requests for streetlights with CMP, I’ve always gotten good service,” DeWitt said.       

OUTSIDE ADVICE

       George Woodbury, principal of Light Smart Energy Consulting in Hollis, N.H., works with communities throughout northern New England on a variety of lighting issues. He has found that communities like Kennebunkport, which seek to reduce ambient light, often have trouble dealing with electric utilities on the issue.

       Woodbury contends that utility companies like CMP and Boston Edison typically prefer to replace streetlights on a watt-per-watt basis, which doesn’t necessarily ensure that the new lights will emit equivalent amounts of light. Often, new lights emit more light – even at lower wattages. To illustrate his point, Woodbury compared an old 100-watt mercury-vapor light with a 100-watt high-pressure sodium streetlight. The high-pressure sodium bulb emits nearly 2.5 times as much light, in the form of lumens.

       “You end up with light pollution,” he said. Yet, according to Woodbury, communities that want to curb ambient light often are at the mercy of the utilities. “You need the utility’s cooperation to put bulbs on their poles,” he said.

       Woodbury was public works director in Lexington, Mass., in 1988 when the town tangled with Boston Edison over streetlights. The town, which leased streetlights from the utility, wanted white lights with classic-looking fixtures. The company, on the other hand, sought to replace existing white lights with the yellow-orange glow of high-pressure sodium. The department of public utilities in Massachusetts urged the two sides to reach a compromise, but the case stretched into the mid-1990s.

       Ultimately, a committee of the Massachusetts Municipal Association lobbied state lawmakers for a change in the law, giving municipalities greater control over streetlights. Woodbury helped write the legislation, which became law in November of 1998.

       “The utility had to sell streetlights to the towns if the towns wanted to buy them,” Woodbury said. “They could put up any kind of light they wanted.”

        Woodbury contends that utility companies are reluctant to relinquish control of streetlights because of the money. “This is a cash cow,” he said.