2018-05-04 / Front Page

City sees the light

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – Nearly a decade after City Planner Tex Haeuser had a bright idea, the light bulb had finally gone on, not just over his head, but across the entire city.

Back in 2011, Haesuer joined with peers in Falmouth and Rockland to lead an effort to take some control over street lighting. It wasn’t the first such effort. Historically, municipalities have been limited to leasing streetlights, with the equipment actually owned and maintained by Central Maine Power.

Efforts were made in 2003 and again in 2005 to amend state law to allow cities and towns a greater say in operating the fixtures. After those to efforts stalled out, the South Portland-Falmouth-Rockland tripartite was launched with similar results. Finally, on the fourth attempt to amend lighting laws in 2013, a deal was made as part of that year’s omnibus energy bill.

But there was a hitch. Opening up the lease-only option to potential municipal ownership of street lights required that the Maine Public Utilities Commission create from scratch a process to make that happen. It took a little more than three years to iron out the details.

Now, South Portland is ready to make the leap to lighting ownership.

Bringing day to night is no cheap trick and South Portland has snuffed lights in the past to save money. In 2010 the city council voted to shut off 207 streetlights. That ended up saving money only in theory, however, as a CMP rate hike caused the city to pay $5,000 more than it had the year before, even with fewer lights. In 2011 the council agreed to dim another 184 lights. According to City Finance Director Greg L’Heureux that ended up chopping about $13,000 off the annual cost. But that was then, and prices have gone up.

Currently, South Portland leases roughly 1,750 high-pressure sodium and metal halide streetlights from CMP at a cost of about $18,000 per month.

At its April 17 meeting, the city council authorized buying all 1,750 lights from CMP, at a preliminary buy-out price of $216,110.

“This number is updated monthly and it is anticipated the actual sales price will be slightly less, once the final computation is completed,” said City Manager Scott Morelli.

The proposed budget for the next fiscal year, now being hammered out by city councilors, includes money for the purchase. Meanwhile, the city’s capital improvement budget for the current year included $200,000 to retrofit the lights with energy-efficient LED bulbs.

And the bottom line of ownership?

“Overall the streetlight purchase and retrofit project will save the city money, with a net savings estimated for (fiscal year 2019) of $121,500,” Morelli said.

The LED will replace the current 70-watt sodium bulbs with 30-watt LEDs, reducing the city’s electrical consumption by roughly 787,000 kilowatt hours per year. At that rate, full payback of the changeover is expected within five years.

LED lights, howver, come in enough different options that it’s not as simple as a straight swap.

The city is evaluating possible streetlight fixtures and lighting options in pilot programs at five sites. Different lighting “temperatures” can be seen at Broadway from Ocean to Cottage, on E Street, at the corner of Broadway and Westbrook Street, and Pine and Chase streets. A different fixture option can also be see on Wermuth Road in Redbank Village.

City officials are asking residents to weigh in on which options they prefer. A survey form can be found on the city website at http://www.southportland.org/ departments/planning-and-development/ street-lights/.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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