By Jennifer Robison
AMERICAN CANYON — On a drizzly December morning, Chris Hanley slowly makes his way up Wetlands Edge Road in Napa County.
Hanley, a lineman with PG&E contractor DC Electric, pulls his bucket truck alongside a streetlight. He grabs an LED fixture from the back of his truck, climbs into the bucket and lifts himself 30 feet to the top of the light. It takes less than 10 minutes for Hanley to swap out the existing high-pressure sodium vapor fixture with its new, more efficient LED counterpart.
It’s a swap Hanley and other contract workers make 30 or more times a day. At that pace, they’ve completed more than 80,000 LED streetlight conversions across the company’s service area since March 2015. That figure puts PG&E beyond the halfway mark of its three-year program to equip 150,000 company-owned streetlights with the most efficient and reliable fixtures on the market today.
“From a public safety standpoint, the new LED fixtures will bring significant improvements in reliability,” said Manho Yeung, PG&E senior director of Electric System Planning & Reliability. “Fewer burnouts will mean less downtime for lights. Energy efficiency is also a key win, contributing to a big reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions.”
The lights are already paying off for both the public and PG&E.
LED streetlights have both a longer life and a lower consumption profile. They last up to 20 years, or four times the life of a typical high-pressure sodium-vapor lamp (or bulb), and they use up to 75 percent less energy. The fixtures use less power because they more efficiently direct light where it’s needed. A 34-watt LED fixture can replace a 100-watt sodium-vapor fixture and lamp, achieving the same lighting benefit at a 66 percent wattage reduction.
PG&E anticipates that the fixtures installed so far will slash the number of streetlight burnouts by 40 percent across its service area. Fixtures converted through the end of 2016 will save more than 25 million kilowatt hours of energy use per year.
That’s enough to power more than 1,200 homes for a year, or to binge-watch 33 seasons of your favorite TV show with 500,000 of your closest friends. It also removes the amount of air pollution generated by more than 1,000 cars, and saves the amount of carbon that nearly 125,000 tree seedlings would consume over a decade.
The conversion program has also come in well under budget: The California Public Utilities Commission approved the initiative in 2014 as part of PG&E’s general rate case, to enable replacement of increasingly obsolete streetlights that were as much as 40 years old.
While commissioners allowed $60 million for the LED streetlight program, it’s on track to cost $37.4 million by the time conversions wrap up in the first quarter of 2018.
Yeung said cost savings have come partly from working with cities up front to explain the streetlights’ benefits, and to allow them to opt into the program.
Cities that opted in waived their usual permitting fees. Plus, as the fixtures’ technology has improved, their cost has dropped dramatically, from roughly $300 per fixture to between $100 and $200 per light. That has happened as the technology has matured — similar to the progress that has driven down the cost of private rooftop solar, Yeung said. PG&E buys its fixtures from North Carolina-based Cree Lighting, a globally recognized LED innovator.
Conversions began in early 2015 in Contra Costa County, where PG&E replaced 25,000 fixtures. In 2016, the company converted another 55,000 fixtures in 70 communities, including San Jose, Eureka, Paso Robles, Buellton, Chico, Clovis, Pinole, Santa Cruz, Calistoga and Livingston.
The power savings from increased energy efficiency are passed onto streetlight customers via a lower monthly billing rate. By opting into the program, cities and counties are able to greatly improve the lighting quality in their communities at a reduced cost.
In Santa Barbara County, PG&E contractors converted more than 3,000 streetlights in 2016.
“The overwhelming response is that almost everyone has been happy,” said Will Robertson, transportation planning supervisor in the county’s Public Works Department. “In urban areas, we definitely have better visibility, especially in poor weather with fog and rain. People also say they like being able to go out to their cars at night and see what’s going on. They definitely feel safer.”
County officials had mulled conversions before, but decided the cost benefit wasn’t quite in place.
“But the technology is there now,” Robertson said. “It’s nice to see PG&E on the cutting edge. I think PG&E jumped on it at the right time.”
Those benefits will find their way to more cities and counties in 2017. Larger conversions scheduled in the year ahead include programs in Kern County, Rocklin, Vacaville, West Sacramento and San Joaquin County.
In separate initiatives, PG&E will also launch an LED streetlight pilot in San Francisco, plus a program to convert decorative streetlights, such as those in suburban East Bay downtowns, to LED fixtures.
Wherever PG&E installs its lights, the fixtures will be adaptable, and equipped to handle developing technologies such as automated dimming for more cost savings, and WiFi connection that sends an alert the instant a fixture burns out, enabling quicker replacement.
“Our fixtures are ready for the next technological advancement,” Yeung said.
Email Currents at Currents@pge.com.