Missoula, Mont., Council OKs Streetlight Upgrade Project

The city will work with NorthWestern Energy to replace all 1,808 of the existing high-pressure sodium lights with LED lights. NorthWestern estimates the changes will save the city $79,000 per year in electricity costs.

LED Streetlight
(TNS) — The Missoula City Council voted Monday to move forward with a project to convert all city streetlights to LED lights in partnership with NorthWestern Energy.

On Monday, the council approved on a 9-3 vote for the mayor to sign an agreement between the city and NorthWestern for the LED conversion project, as well as a memorandum of understanding for streetlight districts with NorthWestern Energy. Councilors Heidi West, Jesse Ramos and John Contos voted against the motion.

The council also approved the adoption of the Climate Ready Missoula Plan in a joint resolution with Missoula County Commissioners. All commissioners voted in favor of the plan Monday night. Eleven council members voted in favor of the city adopting Climate Ready Missoula as part of the city's growth policy, with the exception of Councilor John Contos who abstained from voting.

In the project to replace streetlights, the City of Missoula will work with NorthWestern to replace all 1,808 of the city's high-pressure sodium lights with LED lights on the poles already in place. NorthWestern estimates the LED lights will save the city $79,000 per year in electricity costs because they use about half the energy as the current lights.

"It's a significant upgrade to the streetlight system," Jeremy Keene, the city's Public Works director, told the Missoulian. "They're more energy efficient, and they have better light."

Keene said the project will also improve safety for pedestrians and vehicles, while also increasing the life of the fixtures. A handful of lights have already been installed for beta testing, but the majority of the LED lights will likely be installed in the next six to nine months, according to Keene.

The lights will come at no upfront cost to the city, with NorthWestern paying for the LED fixtures and installation as part of a statewide project in larger Montana cities. The city will pay for electricity and maintenance costs per rate charges set annually for the state by the Montana Public Service Commission.

The money the city saves from reduced energy costs will be used to reduce the charges to residents in special improvement lighting districts, or to make additional lighting improvements in those districts, according to city documents.

Councilor Heidi West said she voted against the motion because she did not feel it was the best way to fund the city's lighting districts after an independent analysis on the city's lighting districts determined that the infrastructure payoff would be two to three years.

"We are always discussing about savings at current rates and there's no guarantee that these rates are going to stay the same," West said. "NorthWestern Energy considers approaching the Public Service Commission on an annual basis, and I foresee that they will be approaching the PSC because they're going to have to recoup the materials cost for these upgrades."

West also said she worried that the project could create inequity among cities in Montana. West noted that if rates increase, communities that have not upgraded to LED lights would be burdened with "an increased rate without increased efficiency."

"I think that there's severe equity issues when we're looking at this on a statewide basis where communities like Bozeman, Billings and Missoula will see financial savings, while there will be additional costs for smaller communities that are maybe less likely to be able to weather those increases," she said.

Councilor Jordan Hess voted in favor of the project, although he said he appreciated West's scrutiny.

"I think that the energy savings that come along with this conversion project are a net win overall, but it's not without sharing some of her reservations," Hess said.

The city's current lights are about 20 to 30 years old, Keene said. The new lights will appear brighter — partly because the old lights have faded over time, and also because LED lights have a different color spectrum that makes them appear to be whiter.

"A lot of the the older style lights that we have are high pressure sodium, and that gives kind of a yellow appearance, and on the LED lights, you can always tell it's an LED because it's a pure white light," Keene told the Missoulian.

Although there was no public comment during or submitted prior to Monday's meeting, or a committee meeting on Wednesday when the project was discussed, some community members have expressed concerns that the brighter LED lights will contribute to light pollution, according to Keene.

"I think people really care about the quality of our night sky in Missoula and so there are concerns that when we do street lighting, that it's too bright," Keene told the Missoulian. "We're going to have to be careful and sensitive to those kinds of impacts."

Keene said the city is working with NorthWestern to make sure that the light is directed in the right places.

"We we want to light streets," he said. "We don't want to light people's houses or yards or the sky."

City Council President Bryan von Lossberg also noted community concerns about compliance with the city's dark skies ordinance. During a committee meeting Wednesday, he asked if the city and NorthWestern could host some pilot conversions where they could demonstrate to the public the difference between lighting fixtures, which Keene said he is now working on with Public Works.

"I'm certainly interested and will be asking Public Works and NorthWestern to come in and give us an update about how that's going, and I really want to see the community involved in the way that I was describing," Von Lossberg told the Missoulian.

Before beginning any LED conversion, NorthWestern and the City will also create a process for landowners with issues to contact NorthWestern, according to the agreement approved by council.

Keene said that as part of the process, the city is trying to use the two new agreements to set up a path to make improvements to its lighting system in the future, which could include consolidating some lighting districts.

©2020 Missoulian, Mont. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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