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Houston to Convert All 165,000 Streetlights to LED

All 165,000 of Houston's streetlights will be converted to more efficient LEDs over the next five years, halving electricity use and cutting air pollution in what Mayor Annise Parker said will be one of the nation's largest such initiatives.

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All 165,000 of Houston's streetlights will be converted to more efficient LEDs over the next five years, halving electricity use and cutting air pollution in what Mayor Annise Parker said will be one of the nation's largest such initiatives.

Also on Friday, the city said it had struck a deal to open up land under power lines for the construction of hike and bike trails, the result of years of negotiations in Austin to enact necessary legislation and months of local discussions. Both the trails and streetlights announcements involved agreements with CenterPoint Energy.

The switch from yellowish high-pressure sodium, mercury vapor and metal halide streetlights to bluish light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, may require no added city investment. Officials with the city and CenterPoint, which owns the streetlights, project that a long-term drop in maintenance costs will offset the up-front cost of installation.

LED lights draw less power and last longer than traditional bulbs.

Parker said the move would help the city reach its goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions produced by municipal operations by 10 percent by 2016. Once finished, the mayor said, the switch will save the city a projected $28 million in electricity costs over 10 years.

"In addition to being good for the planet, if we can cut energy consumption it's also really good for the city's bottom line," Parker said.

Numerous cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have begun switching to LED streetlights. In the last three months, officials have discussed or acted to swap streetlights in Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Detroit, and in towns from Minnesota and Missouri to Massachusetts.

Once Houston's conversion is complete, CenterPoint president and CEO Scott Prochazka said, Houston will use an estimated 70 million fewer kilowatt hours annually, enough to power about 5,400 local homes.

"The city of Houston continues to be a leader among U.S. cities when it comes to energy efficiency," he said. "CenterPoint is proud to play a part in the city's leadership role."

LED bulbs emit blue light in much higher volume than traditional streetlights. Research has shown nighttime exposure to blue light, even when dim, can suppress the release of melatonin, a hormone that influences people's sleep cycles and can prevent disease.

But Dick Hansler, an expert in the field and a professor at John Carroll University in Ohio, said concerns about LED streetlights are overblown. His colleague Edward Carmone said their team is more concerned about the impact of LED screens in the home, such as in TVs and smartphones.

Laura Spanjian, Houston's sustainability director, said city staff have been in touch with officials in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Asheville, N.C., and other cities that have tackled the conversion.

"They've only had, really, a few complaints, and they've been able to do certain things like put little shields around the LED lights if, in fact, one does impact a certain block or a certain person's home," Spanjian said. "The LED technology has very much improved over the years."

Regarding the trails agreement, CenterPoint says there are 923 miles of right of way in Harris County, including 410 in the city of Houston. Those involved in the effort have estimated about 140 miles of right of way sit under large transmission lines, which make the most sense for trails.

In making the announcement, CenterPoint also presented a $1.5 million check for trail construction.

Houston voters in 2012 approved $100 million in bonds to be combined with private and grant funds for the $205 million Bayou Greenway Initiative to expand the city's trail system along bayous.

The bayous largely run west to east, Parker said, requiring more north-south connections -- and, conveniently, many transmissions corridors run north-south.

"We also have a lot of miles of bayou trails to install," the mayor said, "but this allows us to make a more complete system."

Bills to allow trails on utility right of way were filed as early as 2007 but stalled over questions about how much liability CenterPoint should face in opening its land for recreational use. A compromise was reached last year. The utility is liable only for a serious injury or death caused by its "willful or wanton acts or gross negligence." Under the agreement announced Friday, the city would pay the utility's legal bills if lawsuits are filed.

Houston Parks and Recreation Department Director Joe Turner said the first trail to take advantage of the deal will be a segment along Brays Bayou that will cross a transmission corridor on the University of Houston's property northeast of the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Old Spanish Trail. The next likely target to run along a power line will be a north-south trail from Sims Bayou to Cambridge Village Park in southwest Houston, he said.

"It couldn't come at a better time," Turner said. "We need this agreement right now to get this project started. We will be working with the parks board, us together, raising funds to continue the growth of this trail system through the city."

The north-south connections are crucial for cyclists, said bicycle advocate Tom McCasland, also director of the Harris County Housing Authority.

"This becomes part of a freeway system for bicycles, essentially, that connects up the bayou trails and gives you a grid that then you're able to get off and go to the side streets as opposed to the thoroughfares where vehicles are 45 miles per hour-plus," he said. "It's a win for everyone, because you don't have to be out there fighting for space on busy streets."

The City Council will take up both agreements Wednesday.


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