Municipal Street Lighting: Ten Tips for Local Governments

Street lighting is often a local government’s biggest energy expenditure and among the most widespread and visible services that it provides.

However, many local governments pay too much for street lighting and get bad service because investor-owned utilities control their streetlights. Information is power, however, and knowing what you should expect and how to get it from your utility can greatly improve your outcomes.

MI-MAUI has intervened in several utility rate cases to represent local government interests in street lighting rates and services and leads direct negotiations with utilities to improve services and offerings. Contact us for more information or help with these ideas, or anything else streetlight related.

Own your streetlights.

If you own your streetlights, you need to buy only electricity from your utility. Municipalities that own their lights typically:

Save 50% or more compared to utility tariffs

Enjoy superior reliability and faster outage restoration

Can add advanced lighting controls and smart-city functions that multiply benefits of LEDs.

Retain ownership of whatever lights are already municipally owned. Whenever financially feasible buy out utility lights or replace them with new, municipally owned lights. Don’t worry about managing them – competitive-market lighting contractors can maintain your streetlights for less than utilities charge. MI-MAUI can help evaluate ownership conversion potential and costs, and sort out how to manage municipally owned lights.

Stop letting your utility repair and maintain old-technology streetlights. Insist that any HID service visit result in LED conversion.

High-intensity discharge (HID) lights – such as high-pressure sodium and mercury vapor– use too much electricity, require more-frequent, costly service visits than LEDs and provide lower-quality illumination. While it may be counterintuitive to discard an HID luminaire that only needs a new lamp installed, re-lamping locks in another very expensive (typically $400) service call in five years to replace the lamp yet again, and excessive electricity use until then. Converting to LEDs saves so much money in reduced maintenance that costs of early retirement of the HID light are quickly recouped. Ask your utility to convert to LED rather than re-lamp or replace control nodes on HID fixtures. Similarly, argue for fixture conversion during service visits to replace poles, mast arms or wiring.

Don’t overpay for LED conversions.

Where regulated utilities commonly spend $700-$1000 per converted fixture, competitive-market lighting providers charge customers $200-$300. Utilities don’t have to compete with market pricing when converting lights they own. The customer ultimately pays these costs, whether through up-front fees or bundled into rates.

It may feel like you have no negotiating leverage to reduce conversion costs proposed by your utility, but many times we have seen customers work out a much better deal simply because they know what a reasonable cost looks like. MI-MAU can help analyze and negotiate conversion proposals to ensure your utility targets the right lights for conversion, incurs appropriate costs and chooses the best replacement LEDs.

LEDs provide superior lighting if properly designed – and they often aren’t.

To save time and money, utilities often assume that a new LED should be a simple lumen replacement of an HID fixture. This cookie-cutter approach fails to recognize that:

LEDs misdirect much fewer lumens inside the fixture and to uplight, backlight and glare;

LEDs offer more light distribution patterns than HIDs, which should help ensure that the full target area of roadway and sidewalk – and nowhere else – receives illumination.

LEDs emit a broader spectrum of light that requires fewer lumens than HIDs to support visual tasks of roadway users (“color rendering index” or CRI).

Without proper design and luminaire specification, utilities will often over-illuminate with LEDs that cost too much to buy and energize and may compromise roadway-user safety by creating glare and contrast problems.  MI-MAUI can help you evaluate LED conversion proposals to optimize lighting quality and cost savings from your new LEDs.

Ask your utility to install LEDs with networked lighting controls rather than retrofit later.

Networked lighting controls can pay for themselves and deliver higher quality and more reliable lighting. However, the payoff is much faster if they are installed at the same time as new LEDs rather than retrofitted later. Return visits for the sole purpose of retrofitting will cost hundreds of dollars per fixture, a very steep cost for a component that generally costs only $10-$20.

The cost of networked lights is justified by improved reliability and reduced O&M costs, even without immediately activating cutting-edge functions many users aren’t ready to commit to. By instantly knowing about outages and their causes, the utility can reduce outage occurrences, durations, and response costs. Networked lights can also implement programmed dimming, which reduces electricity costs and extends fixture service life. Studies show that roadway users do not notice dimming up to 20%. Some cities dim lights even more than that late at night when fewer people are out and about.

Outages probably last much longer than your utility reports.

Research and data suggest that the average streetlight outage goes unreported for at least three to four weeks. Adding the time it takes for the utility to restore service after receiving the report suggests actual outage time averaging one month – far more than the three to eight days utilities typically report. Thus, it is imperative for both utilities and customers to use technology and management practices to identify outages faster. For their part, customers should track, report, follow-up and seek bill credits as much as possible to hold the utility accountable for service quality and reliability. MI-MAUI can help you request, track, and analyze outage data, hold your utility accountable for effective management and technology practices, and seek bill credits for outages.

Verify outage restorations.

Utilities make various errors in their outage tracking and resolution reporting. In the absence of networked controls, false restorations can be caught promptly only by visual follow-up inspection. You should request regular outage reports from your utility and drive past lights (after dark) that the utility has reported as fixed. Some municipalities recruit police and public works staff for this task. Tracking outages also gives you data to establish accountability and support requests for bill credits.

Don’t pay for streetlights that aren’t working.

We raise this point mainly to highlight that many utilities think there is nothing wrong with continuing to charge you when their equipment fails to deliver the light you are paying for. Rigorously track outages and confirm (or dispute) restorations, and request for bill credits at every opportunity. Otherwise, your utility will face little incentive to prevent and detect outages itself and will react only when you or a community member let them know their equipment is not working.

Other electricity customers don’t pay when they receive no service – because their meters stop running. Expecting lighting customers to keep paying only because there is no meter record of service interruptions prioritizes the utility’s convenience over the customer’s rights.

You are being overcharged – probably.

Because utilities generally don’t have precise data about lighting deployments, bills often contain errors. Common errors include billing the wrong customer for lights, billing for non-existent lights, and billing for the wrong luminaire type or wattage. Periodically reconcile your bill to your actual streetlight deployment, using a field inventory built upon whatever data the utility can provide plus your own information. Some consultants offer lighting audit services compensated only by value of billing errors they find.

Utility lighting bills are hard to read, hard to compare to published tariffs, and hard to reconcile to your actual lighting deployments. Furthermore, many municipalities receive multiple street lighting bills from their utility at different times of the month, making it hard to compile and reconcile bills to each other. MAUI’s experienced eyes can quickly spot potential areas of concern in your bills and figure out where and how to dig deeper.

Lighting tariffs include pre-paid removal costs.

Cities have various reasons to move or remove lights. They often don’t follow through because many utilities charge very steep removal costs – commonly 10x or more the annual tariff. Keeping unwanted lights drives inefficient services and waste or taxpayer dollars. What many local officials don’t realize, though is that they pre-pay substantial removal costs as part of their monthly tariff. Many utilities, including those in Michigan, don’t credit these “net salvage value” payments toward costs when a customer requests relocation or removal. Rather, they apply the funds only toward routine utility asset replacement costs. Particularly if a light or pole is old and would need to be removed and replaced soon anyways, urge your utility to apply all those years of net salvage payments toward the removal cost.

Use these tips to identify and diagnose potential problems with your streetlight service and costs, and to hold your utility accountable for providing solutions. Because the utility has a lot more technical knowledge and staffing capacity, you may feel that your discussions with them are not on a level playing field. MAUI can provide advice, support you with targeted consulting services or help you find other providers to address your needs.

Contact: Rick Bunch, Executive Director,, (m)206-595-8293

DTE Energy Large-Customer Voluntary Green Program: Issues and Options for Public Agencies and Others

Download a copy of this post in PDF format here: U20343 DTE municipal brief

DTE Energy’s new “Voluntary Green Power” (VGP) program allows large customers to contract to increase their renewable-energy supply incrementally up to 100%. The program recently received interim approval from the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) as case U-20343. The rules and rates of this program are important to customers that have adopted policy or financial goals related to clean energy, and that are unable (like most) to achieve those goals wholly through energy conservation and on-site (distributed) energy generation, like solar PV. Continue reading

Municipal Streetlights Rate Victory: Consumers Energy and MPSC case U-20134

Download a copy of this post in PDF format here: U20134 Consumers rate case outcome

Thanks to rate-case intervention of municipalities organized and supported by MI-MAUI, public street lighting customers of Consumers Energy avoided $3 million in rate increases in 2019, and almost $6 million in additional increases phased in over 2020 and 2021. In particular, Consumers’ originally proposed 61% increase in LED streetlight rates was held to only 2.2% in 2019. Continue reading