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Behind the City of Pittsburgh's plans to outfit 35,000 streetlights with LEDs

A streetlight along Penn Ave.
Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA
A streetlight along Penn Ave.

The City of Pittsburgh appears poised to select Pittsburgh-based lighting company The Efficiency Network (TEN) as the contractor for a $16-million LED streetlight conversion project.

“This is a huge contract,” said Kinsey Casey, chief operating officer for the city of Pittsburgh when the winning bidder was first announced. “It’s going to change the way the city looks for decades to come.”

Under the contract, TEN will replace the city’s 35,000 existing streetlights with LED fixtures. The city will also add 15,000 new streetlights to neighborhoods where less than 85 percent of the area is illuminated by streetlights. These areas were identified through a comprehensive survey completed by the company Cyclomedia earlier this year, resulting in a complete map of all of Pittsburgh’s streetlights. The 15,000 new lights are being paid for with $12 million in federal stimulus funds from the American Rescue Plan.

All new lighting will meet the requirements of Pittsburgh’snew dark sky lighting ordinance, enacted in September. The ordinance has garnered national attention, since Pittsburgh is the first major city to adopt the latest guidelines of the International Dark Sky Association, which aim to reduce light pollution, which negatively impact wildlife habitats, bird migration and human health.

Not everyone is enamored of the new arrangement. During a Nov. 1 City Council discussion of the deal, Councilor Deb Gross raised a series of concerns, ranging from technical concerns about LED bulbs to the fact that TEN is owned by the same parent company as Duquesne Light, with whom the city must negotiate a new utility contract.

Currently, the city pays the utility provider a flat rate for each streetlamp, regardless of actual energy consumption. While the conversion project is expected to save the city $1 million a year in utility costs, actually realizing those savings will require renegotiating that deal — a process that TEN will participate in.

“Aren’t we just allowing Duquesne Light to talk to Duquesne Light?” Gross asked. “And how is that advantageous to the taxpayer?”

Angela Martinez, who has been overseeing the project for the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, said that the entities remain separate and regulations bar collusion between them. Kim Lucas, who heads DoMI, said that almost all of the other qualified bidders for the project also “had a relationship to somebody that we are going to have discussions with.” She said the city would ensure the terms of a negotiation were favorable.

The Efficiency Network was the subject of controversy in 2015 when former TEN executive Patrick Regan conspired with Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski for a $3 million contract for new LED street lights to his firm in exchange for campaign contributions to the mayor. But that was when the company had different ownership. A spokesperson for the city couldn't said she comment on the discussion on vendors who bid for the project, but said "all bids for opportunities are considered by a panel of experts from multiple departments that review vendors and their submitted materials to choose the best product for taxpayers, the environment and our neighborhoods."

The city issued a Request for Proposals in May and announced the selection of TEN. Casey said there were multiple bids and contractors underwent a full city process of interviews and scoring. Officials say a notable factor in TEN’s proposal was its plans to provide workforce development opportunities through a partnership with the Pittsburgh chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. In addition, TEN plans to create a new apprenticeship pipeline with Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Career and Technical Education programs.

Casey said TEN was selected for several reasons, including the workforce development component of their proposal, their ability to comply with the city’s desired timeline and the fact that TEN is a local company that has done work with Harrisburg and other Pennslyvania communities.

In any case, Gross’ colleagues on council expressed little concern about the contract: She was the only “no” in a preliminary vote to approve it on Monday.

Casey said the city is pursuing an aggressive timeline in order to take advantage of the energy savings as soon as possible, but also to take advantage of savings on maintenance.

The older lights “break a lot,” Casey said. “The longevity of the LEDs is much higher.”

Casey said Pittsburgh’s streetlights consume about 25 million kilowatt hours of electricity every year—more than half the power used for all city operations.

Almost all of Pittsburgh’s existing streetlights are high-pressure sodium “cobra heads,” so-named for the shape of the pole, which arches like a hooded cobra to cast light down on the street. Casey said LEDs are 70 percent more energy efficient than the high-pressure sodium lights.

Martinez and Lucas told council that TEN had said actual replacement of the lights would take about 10 months. But they also said there would be an active community-engagement process as part of an effort to determine which communities should be prioritized.

Part of that work will include a demonstration project for the public, so residents can see what the new LED streetlights will look like later this year. Updates on community engagement opportunities will be shared on the city’s Engage PGH page.

Casey said there are always challenges with an infrastructure project of this scale -- including having access to enough skilled labor and Pittsburgh’s hilly terrain. “There are some streetlights you can’t reach in a bucket truck,” Casey said.

All in all, she said, “We want to do this in two to three years, and that’s a lot of light bulbs to change in two to three years.”

Chris Potter contributed to this report.

Susan Scott Peterson is an audio producer and writer whose journalism, radio and literary work have appeared with Vox Media, New Hampshire Public Radio, Allegheny Front, The Texas Observer and The Rumpus.