City wants green streetlights, but BGE blocks the way

Loss of lucrative maintenance deal seems to be at issue

May 22, 2011|By Jay Hancock

It's the kind of happy, green energy story that Baltimore Gas & Electric claims to love. Baltimore officials want to replace the city's conventional streetlights with long-life, super-efficient bulbs using light-emitting diodes.

LEDs could cut power use and carbon emissions by more than a third, make Baltimore a conservation pioneer and eventually save more than $7 million a year for a city that plans to lay off teachers and could use the dough.

But Baltimore officials say BGE has blocked the move with bogus claims that their plan is unsafe. And the facts are on the city's side.

To make the switch pay, Baltimore must dump its streetlight maintenance contract with BGE and take responsibility for replacing burnt-out lamps, city officials say. But that can't happen, BGE says, without expensive new circuit breakers to keep city workers from electrocuting themselves.

Nonsense, says Baltimore. BGE workers don't get hurt when they change streetlight bulbs. Neither would city workers. Safety, say city officials, is BGE's excuse for resisting the loss of its lucrative maintenance deal.

"This is a pretty big profit center for them," says Jamie Kendrick, deputy director of the Baltimore Department of Transportation. "If they let the city do it, they've got to let the county do it. If they let the county do it, they've got to let everybody do it."

You may be thinking BGE is also worried about the decline in electricity use that would come with LEDs. But that's probably not a concern. To promote conservation, a few years ago regulators allowed BGE to collect a set revenue even if customers turn down the megawatts.

The upkeep agreement, however, is a deal BGE probably doesn't want to lose. Baltimore pays the utility $20 million a year for streetlights, $12 million of which is for maintenance, Kendrick says.

There's plenty to save on both electricity and repairs.

Installing LED lamps on Baltimore's 70,000 streetlights could cut power use by as much as 40 percent, estimates Stephen Wood, a former vice president of electricity distribution at both BGE and Con Edison in New York who's working as a consultant for Baltimore. LEDs can last for more than a decade — years longer than the halide lamps Baltimore has now.

Routine maintenance such as changing dead bulbs is the biggest expense in streetlight repair. If Baltimore can't do the work itself and capture the savings that come with long-lived lights, Kendrick says, "none of the numbers work."

But to let the city take over, BGE insists on installing expensive "upstream disconnects" that allow workers to cut power to a whole street or block of lights before they proceed.

That, too, would cut into savings from LEDs and be "completely impractical," the city says in a complaint to the Public Service Commission. There's no reason Baltimore can't hire the same contractors BGE uses to change bulbs the same way — by undoing the fuse assembly at the base of the light, Kendrick argues.

"BGE's argument is that it's not safe for people to do this," says Wood, the former BGE exec. "Except for one thing — that's how they're doing it."

It's also how contractors working for New York City did it when he was at Con Ed, Wood says.

It's how they do it in Bowie, which maintains its own streetlights with contractors and where nobody can "recollect any instance of injury," Public Works Director James Henrikson wrote in a letter supporting Baltimore to the PSC. (Bowie has the upstream disconnects BGE required. It just doesn't use them for changing bulbs!)

"BGE is committed to work with the city to reduce their energy usage and lower their energy bills, but it needs to be done safely," says Jeannette Mills, a senior vice president with BGE and its chief customer officer.

BGE employees and contractors are specially trained to change bulbs without using an upstream shutoff, she said. The company worries that workers under someone else's control might damage the equipment, she added.

Energy is dangerous. Safety is often part of the energy debate, whether it's about nuclear power or coal-plant emissions.

But in this case, BGE's argument is weaker than a one-watt bulb.

BGE's parent, Constellation Energy, says "it is imperative to slow, stop and reverse the growth in greenhouse gas emissions."

The sooner BGE lets Baltimore do what cities elsewhere have been doing for years with no problems, the sooner Baltimore can get on with the job.

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