Arlington County Justice Center Arlington County Justice Center Photo by OZinOH. CC Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic

Now that Arlington County, Va., has switched out nearly all of its traffic signal lamps for light-emitting diodes (LEDs), local officials are setting their sights on streetlights.

With $500,000 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, Arlington seeks to become one of the first communities nationwide to launch a large-scale conversion of its streetlights to LEDs, a move that officials claim could help the environment and save the county more than $1 million a year.

“That’s a big incentive here,” said Shahid Abbas, Arlington’s Intelligent Transportation System and traffic signals manager. “We pay almost $2.56 million in our electric costs. Our hope is that once we change all these lights, we’ll be saving $1.3 million to $1.5 million dollars.”

After the conversion, Abbas said, Arlington would be the first-known county in the world to have lights that are 100 percent dark sky compliant, which means they don’t shoot any glare up toward the sky.

By using federal funding from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants (EECBG) program, the county expects to replace about 1,800 streetlights (40 percent) by spring 2011. After that, depending on the availability of the funds, the county plans to convert all county-owned streetlights to LEDs in six years, installing 500 new streetlights every year.

Based on current consumption rates, Arlington could reduce its system’s power consumption by up to 60 percent.

“This is a prime example of how federal stimulus funds are being put to good use,” said Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette in a release, adding that other communities are turning to Arlington for best practices. “By leveraging these funds, we are transforming the way we light our streets in a way that saves taxpayer dollars and helps the environment.”

Research shows that LEDs reduce energy consumption and last longer than common streetlamp bulbs. They can also be connected to a centralized control system, which keeps real-time tabs on energy usage and shows which lights need to be replaced. To improve efficiency and cut costs, a number of state and local governments have been looking at LEDs in the past few years, from Anchorage, Alaska, to Los Angeles to cities in New Jersey.

“Deployed on a large scale, LEDs have the potential to tremendously reduce pollution, save energy, save financial resources and add new and unprecedented functionalities to photonic devices,” according to Transcending the Replacement Paradigm of Solid-State Lighting, a report from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

For state and local governments, LEDs may look like a bright idea, but there is a drawback for LED traffic lights. In December, Government Technology reported that LEDs don’t give off heat like incandescent bulbs, so in wintry regions, snow and ice sometime stick to the lights. Governments, in turn, must deploy crews to manually remove the buildup, which adds to maintenance costs and can be dangerous for drivers. Possible solutions include installing weather shields, adding heat elements or coating the lights with water-repellent substances.

In Michigan, Abbas helped see a LED traffic light conversion project to completion in 2002, but even there, he said, the snow problem only happened once or twice a year. And given the heavy snowfall, he said, Michigan’s experience would be a worst-case scenario.

“I don’t imagine we’ll have a problem here,” Abbas said of Arlington.

Arlington doesn’t own all the streetlights in the county, but pays Dominion Power for an additional 11,700 lights. Although those lights are not yet scheduled for conversion, local officials and the power company have been exploring energy-efficient options to pursue in the future, according to the county.

The county will have $1.6 in EECBG funds left over, which will support energy reduction and efficiency projects, such as a solar electric system on the roof of the Central Library and commercial property energy audits and incentives.

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer