2013-09-12 / Opinion

Enabling Cities to Control Their Streetlights

Streetlights may not sound exciting, but the Municipal Streetlight Investment Act, which I championed this legislative session and is now law in Rhode Island, can save our cities and towns about $3 million a year.

Legislation like this isn’t a oneperson show. I’m grateful for the collaboration from so many key players. The research was developed with a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation and included a great team with Jeff Broadhead from Washington County Regional Planning Council, environmental attorney Seth Handy, researcher Dan Carrigg, and Commissioner Marion Gold from the Office of Energy Resources. Thanks to Senate and House leadership for their support.

Currently, streetlights in Rhode Island are owned by the utility company, which for the most part is National Grid. The utility charges cities and towns a standard rate approved by the Public Utilities Commission.

Rhode Island will be the first in the nation with a utility tariff that offers street lighting controls as an option to ALL municipal customers. This allows more efficient street lighting because now cities and towns can control the fixtures and use energy-efficient lights like LEDs. LEDs are also bright white (not the “dirty yellow” of sodium lights) so bicycles and people are shown clearly.

This legislation is groundbreaking for two reasons:

First, we intentionally set the purchase price for buying streetlights from the utility. Simply put, it is what Grid originally paid for the streetlights, minus depreciation. The City of Cambridge sued the state of Massachusetts in order to determine the fair value of a “used” streetlight.

Second, this law establishes “solid state control,” meaning that a city or town could use LED lights for energy efficiency (much like a dimmer on your light switch at home where you lower the output and use less electricity). Currently, streetlight power usage is calculated by number of hours the streetlights are on over the course of a month. It’s standard and often why cities and towns shut off streetlights to save money.

When I proposed the legislation, National Grid was supportive of it. This new tariff is a high priority of Grid’s and they are providing industry leadership in applying street lighting and controls to cities and towns.

We are the first state in the nation where the utility must work with the Office of Energy Resources to develop the new rate schedule

(intentionally written into the law). Why is that important? It means that National Grid must be transparent and not develop a tariff behind closed doors with lastminute submissions to the PUC that the public cannot evaluate beforehand. All of us can see a draft of the tariff after it is submitted to the PUC; it is expected sometime around Sept. 16. The PUC will have two months to review it, and a decision is expected by Thanksgiving.

This is enabling legislation, which means a city or town decides whether it is beneficial to own and maintain its streetlights. In Massachusetts, at least 70 municipalities have purchased their streetlights at a savings of between 15 and 70 percent of their streetlight expenses. Several Rhode Island communities have expressed interest, including Westerly, Warwick, Cranston, South Kingstown and Charlestown and are speaking with PRISM (Partnership Rhode Island Streetlight Maintenance). Jeff Broadhead of the Washington County Planning Council is the lead on this and can be reached at 792-9900.

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