Lighting the Way to Cleaner Air

The way we light our streets can do more than save money for the taxpayers. It can contribute significantly to reducing air pollution.
by | January 28, 2013

"On Scale of 0 to 500," read a recent New York Times headline, "Beijing's Air Quality Tops 'Crazy Bad' at 755." As the article reports, it's not clear what was responsible for Beijing's over-the-top air-quality problem beyond the usual sources of particulate pollution such as nearby factories and the astonishing increase in cars on the streets of China's capital. A complete list of the causes would go on and on.

Governments have long recognized that identifying such causes and fixing them are important roles for planners and regulators. California, for example, has been working on its air quality for decades. Significant progress has been made, yet in 2012, rated by year-round particle pollution, five of the top 10 most-polluted city regions in the United States were in California. Recently I heard a federal Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator report that there are more annual pollution-related deaths in California than traffic fatalities.

The California and Beijing scenarios stem from a multitude of infrastructure-related problems ranging from fuel-source types (fossil fuels for electricity, heating and cooling, and transportation) to land-use planning and the permitting of major polluters within or in proximity to a city--problems that don't lend themselves to quick and cost-effective solutions.

But if you want to have a livable community--one where people can breathe without masks--you'd better be aggressive in fixing the things you can fix. An LED street-lighting project in a Northern California city may seem to be addressing only a tiny part of a big problem, but what Rancho Cordova is doing takes on greater significance when you know that there are an estimated 26.5 million street lights in the United States.

Like many other cities that are replacing their traditional incandescent lighting with light-emitting-diode fixtures, Rancho Cordova initially was attracted to the technology primarily to save money. "We only began looking at LEDs because of how much we thought we might be able to save," says David Gassaway, management analyst for the city. "We believe we are going to be saving around 60 percent or more on electricity costs in the long-term."

But the city knew that there would be other benefits beyond lower electricity bills, including eliminating the toxic gases found in its current lights (thereby reducing landfill pollution) and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention better light quality on neighborhood streets and less light trespass into the night sky. LEDs also were a way to comply with state policies and regulations designed to ensure that infrastructure projects are planned, financed and executed with the concept of livable communities in mind.

In short, Rancho Cordova's project represents more than a token case study of adoption of an interesting technology. It will save money and provide better light quality while reducing near- and long-term demand for electricity and the use of fossil fuels that pollute the air and cause health problems. It's an important example of how we can make efficiency a centerpiece of infrastructure planning for the coming decades. (We think enough of the technology to have developed a "Next Generation LED Street Lighting Toolkit," which is available here on Governing.com.)

The good news for California is that its air quality has been consistently improving for years, and every project like Rancho Cordova's is making a small but valuable contribution. As for Beijing, I'll keep my eyes open in hopes of seeing progress on its "crazy bad" air-quality. Health concerns may in the long run be one of the most important drivers of why and how we do infrastructure projects in the United States and around the world.

Bob Graves  |  Associate Director of the Governing Institute
bgraves@governing.com  | 

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