Anchorage Lights the Way

4,000 LED Streetlights Save More Than Energy

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Gary A. Agron is division manager of engineering at Municipal Light & Power in Anchorage, Alaska.

Mark Wilbur is solutions architect at GE Wireless Control Systems, where he led a team of lighting design engineers to launch the GE LightGrid Wireless Lighting control platform.

Posted: Wednesday, January 3, 2018 10:03 am

LED streetlights have been around for a while, but the communities that have made the conversion from older technologies in recent years are discovering a plethora of benefits that go well beyond saving millions of dollars on energy and maintenance.

With wireless mobile controls, automated management features and the ability to add a variety of high-tech sensors and other devices to individual nodes, these definitely aren’t your father’s streetlights.

The Municipality of Anchorage, Alaska might be in the “land of the midnight sun,” but when late December rolls around, daylight lasts for less than 5 hours and the city’s streetlights put in extra duty. In 2017, Anchorage replaced close to 4,000 high-pressure sodium (HPS) streetlights with the latest light emitting diode (LED) fixtures. The fixtures are on a wireless, networked control system, and so far, things are looking bright.

Gary Agron, division manager of engineering at Municipal Light & Power (ML&P) in Anchorage, said when someone reported that a light had burned out, the first thing staff had to do was go through GIS records to figure out who owned the light – not an easy task when there are at least 11 possibilities, including the city’s park, transit, and street maintenance departments, as well as state agencies, two adjacent utilities, the Alaska Railroad, and others. Only then, could the appropriate agency be dispatched to repair the light.

Now, not only can Agron tell you how many lights ML&P owns, but with a few clicks of a mouse or taps on a mobile device, he can tell you exactly where each light is located, which agency is responsible for it, whether it’s on or off, its intensity, how much energy it’s consuming and the fixture’s “health status.” And, operators can control individual lights or selected groups of fixtures within seconds.

“Let’s say the SWAT team wants to turn off a bunch of lights in a neighborhood where they’re going to do an operation,” Agron said. While law enforcement has been known to literally shoot out the lights when they wanted an area to go dark, “now all they have to do is call us and I can remotely access my light grid and go click, click, click, and all those lights go off.”

In another example, Agron said, if authorities are looking for a lost child, the brightness of the lights in a specific neighborhood could potentially be turned up to assist in the search.

The LED lights are using about half the energy of the equivalent HPS lights they replaced. With the ability to set up automated controls and adjust the timing and intensity of the lights, these new lights could save up to an additional 35 percent, Agron said.

“For example, our parks department knows there’s nobody out on their trails in the winter between midnight and 5 a.m., so they can dim all those lights down to 30 percent during those hours and save a lot of energy. The same goes for their golf course, where people go cross-country skiing in the winter. Nobody’s out there at midnight. Why have those lights on all the time?”

Another example Agron cited is the Port of Anchorage. Security lights can be turned on when there are trucks and equipment moving containers in and out, and turned down or off when no port operations are in progress.

In all, the municipality expects to save at least $400,000 per year on energy and maintenance, and reduce the city’s carbon footprint by 2,000 metric tons of CO2 annually – the same effect as taking 1,800 cars off the road or powering 1,900 homes. As a result, the $3.4 million system will pay for itself in less than nine years, he said.

When it came time to replace the municipality’s streetlights, ML&P’s vision was to meet what Agron called “the four S’s.” The new lights had to provide savings, improve safety, be sustainable, and they had to be “smart.” When Agron’s team proposed an eight-year project that would gradually implement the conversion, the municipality wanted to reap all the benefits in one year instead. It was a big job, but about 4,000 streetlights along 110 miles of city streets and trails have now been replaced, Agron said.

Anchorage looked at a variety of LED fixtures and control systems before settling on the GE LightGrid Outdoor Wireless Control System, which Agron said was also selected by the cities of San Diego, Montreal, Honolulu, Hillsboro, Redmond and Oceanside. The lights carry a 10-year warranty and have a 15-year life expectancy. They have been cold-weather tested and are compliant with the back-lighting, up-lighting and glare specifications of the International Dark-Sky Association, which works to reduce “light pollution” in urban areas. “People in Alaska like to see the Northern Lights,” Agron said. “So, that was important to us.”

Because the light produced by LEDs has different properties than those of traditional streetlights, Agron said communication with the public is critical to address some citizen concerns. The public reaction to the new LEDs is overwhelmingly positive, he said, but his department has received some complaints since the installation began. The most common objection is that the new lights look brighter than the old lights. A few residents complained that the LED fixtures shined unwanted light into some places, or no longer illuminated spaces adjacent to roads and sidewalks. One homeowner, for example, was concerned because he could no longer see the moose in his yard. In some cases, these concerns could be addressed by adjusting a light’s intensity, timing or adding a back shield.

Others worried that LED lights might create health hazards or that the control nodes contained camera equipment to spy on them. Many of these concerns can be dispelled through a public information campaign prior to and during the implementation, Agron said. Anchorage posted a Frequently Asked Questions page on the city’s web site and took advantage of coverage in the local media.

At a future date, Agron said, the municipality and other agencies in the city could potentially use the ML&P streetlight poles to provide numerous other services in specific locations, including:

• “Small cell” capability, which would allow local telephone carriers to fill gaps in cell-phone service by installing short-range antennas on selected streetlight poles.

• Special cameras that monitor parking spaces, which can feed an online service that helps drivers find available parking.

• Equipment that measures the depth of snow to help dispatch plows and sand trucks.

• Acoustic sensors that report the location of gunshots being fired.

Agron said some of these optional features could represent revenue opportunities for the municipality, which could lease what he called “vertical real estate” on the streetlight poles, further defraying the cost of the streetlights. These devices can easily be moved, so in the case of gunshot detection, for example, “you can put them in the neighborhoods that you think have the most crime or the highest amount of shootings, and when things change those devices can be moved at any time.”

Agron will be the featured presenter in a free 1-hour webinar hosted by Sustainable City Network on Jan. 25. He’ll be joined by Mark Wilbur of GE Wireless Control Systems, who'll answer technical questions about the LED streetlight system. Register to attend the live event or download the recording at

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