Anchorage slated to upgrade streetlights to 'smart grid' technology

Anchorage's city-owned electric utility is slated to outfit thousands of streetlights with LED bulbs and wireless controls that can dim or brighten the lights remotely or alert city officials to burned-out bulbs, signaling a push toward "smart" lighting technology.

On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly will consider authorizing a $1.6 million contract to convert 4,000 streetlights from orange sodium bulbs to energy-saving LED bulbs in 2017. The contract, which pays for equipment and is roughly half the total project cost, is with Crescent Electric Supply Co., a Fairbanks-based electrical supplier. Municipal Light and Power officials estimate energy and maintenance savings of about $400,000 a year or more by shifting to LEDs, or light-emitting diodes.

Unlike conventional lighting, LEDs waste little energy as heat.

The new lights will also come with a wireless control system, "LightGrid," designed by General Electric, that can allow the lights to be remotely controlled. In the future, the technology could be used in ways that range from monitoring traffic and parking, collecting data on air quality, detecting the location of a gunshot or observing human activity.

A number of other cities are already experimenting with "smart" streetlights, including San Diego, California, and Jacksonville, Florida. In San Diego, officials are testing sensors that could guide drivers to open parking spots. A Chicago test program is collecting climate data from sensors on top of light poles.

That's far beyond what the Assembly will consider Tuesday, said Jim Jager, a city spokesman.

He said the current contract would only allow for the installation of LED lights and a wireless LED control system. The control system can be used to dim lights and locate burned-out ones, but does not include audio or video surveillance equipment, Jager said.  

The computer-like devices come with meters to measure how much electricity the LEDs are using, Jager said. He said that information can be used for billing purposes.  

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz had promised to re-start a city effort to transition to LED lighting. That effort began this summer with streetlights owned by the city's Maintenance and Operations department using $200,000 in bond money. Berkowitz went up in a cherry picker to screw in the first of the lights.

Those bulbs did not include the wireless technology that will be deployed in LEDs by ML&P, but could be outfitted with it in the future, Jager said. He said the controls can be installed and connected with other public agencies in the future.

Right now, Anchorage's lighting system, evolved over time, is a sprawling tangle of ownership. On a given block, four streetlights might be owned by four different companies or agencies.

With the new system, locating a burned-out bulb will be easy, Jager said.

With the wireless controls, the light will "check in" every 15 minutes to indicate that it's still on, Jager said.

He said it will also be possible to dim and brighten lights as needed, to save energy, match traffic patterns or accommodate special events. The city could also respond to public complaints — in light-polluted New York City, some residents were irate about the brighter LED street lamps.

In the future, an Anchorage resident could complain to a city office and petition for a light to be dimmed, Jager said.

Jager likened the technology to using a smartphone to unlock a house door or turn on a smoke detector.

"It will let us talk to the streetlights," Jager said.

Expanding the technology to what other cities are doing — to include visual or audio sensors — would take more money and political discussion, Jager said.

For now, Jager said, ML&P will pay for the installation over a 10-year period. The costs will be covered by anticipated savings in maintenance and electricity, he said.

He said there shouldn't be a short-term effect on ratepayers, with the goal of cutting costs over time.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.