Last week, Pittsburgh began converting the streetlights in 32 business districts from high-pressure sodium lights to more sustainable LED ones — a $2.5 million project with $865,000 in grant funding. The city estimates it will reduce electricity usage for those lights by 60 percent. The project's announcement also sparked some competition between City Councilor Bill Peduto and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who each stake various claims for initiating the project, and who held lighting ceremonies in different neighborhoods. At any rate, it's been an event long in the making, and Peduto explains why.
The LED program was a component of the Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan that started years ago — and lights are just being installed now. What happened in between?
It's far from just changing light bulbs. Studies were conducted by [University of Pittsburgh's Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation] that looked at what's environmentally friendly lighting technology today from cradle to grave — it was the first [study] of its kind in the world. We used that information and partnered with the Clinton Climate Initiative out of Boston, [as well as] working with Anchorage, Alaska, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, who helped put together the idea of what the program would look like.
We took over 50 models of LED lights and put them in the South Side. We had 150 lights and tested them through nine months; then, [we] had students from the University of Pittsburgh test the environmental impact of them. Once we got all of that done, we created a whole new lighting code out of nothing. Then we took the [Pitt] study, the new lighting code and other studies that were done, and gave it to Carnegie Mellon University, which put together a comprehensive plan for the city for urban lighting. Then, we put together the Request for Proposals.
Part of this plan is the launch of the website, www.pittsburghledproject.com, that details the work the city has done on the project. Do you see that as something the city should be involved in?
That's the Pittsburgh model — that's what makes it different from any other place, because we created a foundation to make good decisions. And with that, all of that research will be online so any municipality, any institution or any government can follow the Pittsburgh model of 21st-century urban lighting. ... From the beginning, it was stated that if we just replaced light bulbs, we've failed. All along, it was to always be able to present them with all the facts, findings, information, reports and documents, so they could have it as a guide.
The city of Columbus, Ohio, installed LED lights, but switched back to their old streetlights because the LEDs had a higher upfront cost they said offset the savings. Is that a risk with this project?
The market has been completely changed in the past two to three years. The number of LEDs coming on the market drastically reduces the cost.
As the technology continues to change and competition becomes higher, the cost will go down, which will allow us to build out even more.
How do you expect the lights to be received by citizens? Will they even notice?
We tried to get as much input as possible: Even when we did the test in South Side, we had opportunity for people's comments. There was limited response to it. We have about half of them installed already. I certainly haven't heard many complaints.
The light is a much cleaner light, much more real light. ... It makes an area feel cleaner and brighter, which also adds to people's perception of public safety, and in commercial districts, that's what people are looking for. When we move into the residential areas, people may feel like it keeps them up at night. Hopefully by then, we'll have a technology that allows them to dim it.