Urban planners are starting to see things in a different light. Outdoor public street lighting systems are replacing traditional incandescent street lights with new Light Emitting Diode (LED) lighting. As much as two-thirds of all American street lights still use the incandescent bulbs, which use high-pressure sodium (HPS), metal halide or mercury vapor in their construction. The older lamps have been found to account for as much as 60% of a municipality's energy budget and, according to a 2011 Carnegie Mellon University study, roughly 40% of total energy consumption.
Incandescent lighting produces gas and light as a byproduct of being heated and this requires more energy to achieve. Industrial LED Lights don't require heat to produce light as they are semiconductors, only needing an electric current. Looking to cut waste and expense, urban planners are welcoming the use of LEDs in a variety of urban lighting situations. Street and traffic light conversion initiatives are popping up in places like Nebraska, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. LEDs are also being used in parking garages, along with new sensor technology. LEDs attached to solar power technology add extra savings benefits and are perfectly suited for small communities.
Pittsburgh is one of the cities leading the way in this LED revolution. Pittsburgh began by installing LED lamps in areas such as Brighton Heights, the South Side and downtown. Better than projected savings are already evident, with $140,000 saved annually simply on maintenance expenses. The city has also been able to reduce energy consumption by half.
Other communities have taken notice of the LED lighting in Pittsburgh and upgraded their traffic lights to LED themselves, such as the borough of Edgeworth. Saving costs on efficiency and lowered maintenance, the borough was able to save 60% on their energy costs.
Edgeworth has since decided to expand the conversion to its street lights, but the process is a more difficult undertaking. The first hurdle faced comes in raising the higher upfront costs involved with LED bulbs—costs can range from $200 to $300, compared to $50 to $100 traditional bulbs. The city of Pittsburgh, for instance, would spend $21 million to install replacement LED bulbs but only $9 million for the metal-halide type. The LED bulbs' energy efficiency and increased longevity makes up for this amount, but
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Some have raised concerns, despite the good reputation of LEDs, over their environmental impact. Examining the entire process involved in producing LEDs, the areas of manufacturing and recycling were shown to be as bad or worse than incandescent bulbs. LEDs actually pose more of a threat than other types of lighting during manufacturing. The raw materials in the circuit boards used also make them difficult to recycle safely. Less toxins are found in LED bulbs than in metal-halide bulbs, however, and no mercury is used. This, combined with the benefits in efficiency, versatility and longevity, clearly makes LED light fixtures an attractive alternative to the incandescent bulb.