Why thousands of streetlights are being switched to LED

It’s easy to see the attraction with LED streetlights: They use less electricity and last much longer than traditional streetlights.

Until recently, they were also far more expensive.

With recent price drops, the Snohomish County Public Utility District is changing more than 36,000 streetlights across the county to LED streetlights.

The PUD started last year in the north part of the county and the effort is expected to continue for several years, said John Gregory, the PUD’s distribution services manager.

“Seattle City Light started two years before us,” Gregory said. “We took a lot of lessons learned from them but they paid a lot more money than we did.”

More and more businesses also are switching to LED outdoor lights, said Shelley Pattison, a PUD executive account manager.

That’s in part, she said, because of incentives provided by the PUD, but also because of the softer, white light LEDs provide.

“If you’re in the business of selling cars, you want that beautiful red Tahoe to look beautiful and red no matter what time of day,” Pattison said.

XFinity Arena switched out its lighting system to LEDs last August just before the Everett Silvertips hockey season got under way.

The PUD maintains thousands of streetlights on its power poles within cities and in unincorporated areas around the county.

Cities like Everett and Marysville maintain thousands of other streetlights as well. (In fact, both cities are expected to change their lights soon. The city of Everett received grants to change about 1,800 streetlights this summer.)

To switch to LEDs — light-emitting diodes — the PUD needs to change out the fixture of the light.

The PUD priced 100-watt LED streetlights five years ago, but found each one cost about $450, Gregory said.

Traditional HPS lights cost about $125 at the time.

Last year, the agency made the plunge when the price dropped to $225 a streetlight. The agency replaced 10,000 streetlights mostly in north Snohomish County.

The price has dropped even further. The PUD expects to pay $130 a streetlight this year.

A traditional HPS — or high pressure sodium lights — is expected to last seven to 10 years. LED lights are expected to last 15 years, but they could last more than 20 years, Gregory said.

The PUD also uses 400-watt streetlights for state highways and on- and off-ramps. HPS lights usually last four years, Gregory said. But LEDs are expected to still last 15 years or longer.

The new lights will use a lot less electricity.

A typical 100-watt HPS light ends up using nearly 130 watts, but these LED lights use only 44 watts or about a third of the electricity.

The real savings will be in the longevity of the streetlights and not having to replace streetlights frequently, Gregory said.

The PUD did some smaller pilot projects before launching the change, looking for comments from customers. Gregory said the responses were positive.

The softer, whiter light can be seen on security cameras where people can see more distinguishing details with shots taken under LED lights.

These lights also are more focused, with less light spillover. That’s proven popular in areas where people enjoy stargazing.

The LED lights contribute to the district’s conservation efforts.

Those efforts have saved the district about 11 megawatts in energy savings or enough power to light up about 8,000 homes, said Neil Neroutsos, PUD spokesman.

“It’s cheaper for us to have conservation programs rather than to go out and buy more energy or build a new power plants,” Neroutsos said.

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