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New, more efficient street lights could save the town big bucks

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GROTON — Quietly, officials at the Groton Electric Light Department have launched an experimental program that could take the town one more step down the road into the 21st century.

If residents had driven down Station Avenue a short time ago, they might have noticed GELD maintenance vehicles working on streetlights there.

On the surface, nothing would have seemed out of the ordinary; lineman would have appeared to merely be changing light fixtures on two poles along the street and one each in the parking areas of Town Hall and the GELD headquarters building.

In reality, the lights were being changed not because the old ones were burnt out, but to replace them with new “green” lights that if they work as advertised, could save the town money and energy down the road.

“We replaced four streetlights on Station Avenue with LED streetlights as part of a pilot program to examine their energy use and lighting ability,” said GELD manager Kevin Kelly of the program. “The lights cost a lot more but they have a much lower operating cost.”

The “green” lights represent an experiment for the town, but have every indication of being the wave of the future as the nation struggles to find more efficient ways to save energy and in the process become less reliant on foreign oil.

“These lights use less energy than regular lights,” said Kelly. “Right now, everybody is excited about compact incandescent lights that use 25 percent less power than most lights. LEDs, meanwhile, use only a fraction of what incandescents use. So even incandescents might be antiques in another couple of years.”

And yet, the technology for the new “green” lights is really nothing new; only its application is.

“The letters LED stand for Light Emitting Diodes and they operate much as does the lighting in typical household digital clocks such as the timepiece in your microwave oven,” said Kelly. “All digital clocks are LED lights. They’re made of diodes that use much less electricity than regular lights. Also, they last for long periods of time. So using them is a possible way to save money. But because the capital cost for these lights is much higher than regular lights, they have to last 10 years before we actually start saving money. Our big concern right now is how long they’re going to last. But this technology is such that their life expectancy is improving all the time. So it’s something we can consider for the rest of the town in the future if cost and longevity continue to improve.”

The big question however, is if there will be any tradeoff in how much light is given off by the new LEDs. Will residents have to live with slightly darkened streets in order to save on energy?

“The LEDs have a slightly different color to them than regular lights but we’re very happy with the amount of light given off by the lights we’ve put up on Station Avenue,” said Kelly. “Light is measured in lumens and these LEDs are comparable to the old lights. But the amount of electricity being used is considerably less.”

On paper, the new lights look promising, but seeing is believing.

“The real world is very different than under laboratory conditions,” observed Kelly. “That’s why we want to see how the lights work before we put a lot of capital on the line to buy them. I want to see for myself how they perform.

“Technology is steadily improving especially for this kind of light that I’ve been looking at and so far I am happy with what I see,” Kelly said. “We’ve been watching LED streetlights for the last three years and this one appeared to be of high enough quality and set at a reasonable enough price to make it worth a try.”

But as always, of most concern to GELD is the welfare of its ratepayers.

“We’re doing this strictly from an economic point of view not just a green point of view,” said Kelly. “We’re looking at the economics of this and it’s the economics involved that have to justify the cost.

“Ten years from now, LED lights are going to be everywhere,” predicted Kelly. “The question is, which manufactures are going to come out on top. In the end, the best manufacturer will come out with the best light at the best price and the customer will be the beneficiary. That’s the American way!”