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Emanuel’s plan to re-light Chicago reaches 100K streetlights, $16M rebate mark

The city wants to save money by replacing outdated streetlights with energy-efficient LED technology. | Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to re-light Chicago has reached a major milestone — 100,000 new LED streetlights installed and $12 million in energy efficiency rebates secured from Commonwealth Edison.

Emanuel will be long gone by the time all 270,000 of Chicago’s high-pressure sodium lights are replaced with LED fixtures at an estimated cost of $160 million.

But, with the much-ballyhooed project now 37 percent complete and on schedule to be finished within four years, the retiring mayor will join ComEd officials on Tuesday to hail installation of the 100,000 streetlight.

ComEd is expected to present the mayor with a ceremonial copy of a $12 million check to highlight the amount of rebates the city has received to date. Another $6 million in rebates are pending this year. That’s in addition to the $1.8 million in energy cost savings.

Over time, the new LED street lights are expected to save beleaguered Chicago taxpayers more than $100 million. That’s because they last two-to-three times longer than the high-pressure sodium lights they’re replacing and consume 50-to-75 percent less electricity, officials said.

The new lights change the overhead look of Chicago. LED lights are whiter than the yellow lights air travelers now see when flying into or out of O’Hare and Midway Airports. They’re also designed to be pointed downward to improve public safety, instead of upward toward the night sky.

That’s why contractor Ameresco spent the first 18 months installing new lights in South and West Side neighborhoods where violent crime is highest. Last summer, LED lights were installed on arterial streets, spreading the benefits to all 50 wards, officials said.

The contract also includes $30 million for a “management system” allowing city workers to monitor and control lighting levels from a central location. When streetlights go out, the city will be alerted.

“Once the new smart lighting system is operational, we will also be notified when lights go out. This will eliminate the need for residents to call 311 to report outages,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in a press release.

“The smart lighting program is moving across the city at a steady pace. With more than 100,000 new streetlights installed, we are improving nighttime visibility and making Chicago a greener, more efficient city…By converting our streetlights to LED technology, we are modernizing Chicago’s infrastructure, creating new jobs and saving taxpayers more than $100 million over the next decade.”

Two years ago, the City Council approved the $160 million streetlight program, but only after shining the light on Emanuel’s murky, pay-as-you-go financing plan.

Instead of using his much-ballyhooed-but-slow-starting Infrastructure Trust to attract private investors to bankroll the four-year conversion of 85 percent Chicago’s streetlights, the “smart lighting” program is being financed by Chicago taxpayers.

That meant a mix of general obligation bonds backed by property taxes, tax-increment-financing (TIF), operating funds or “other funding sources,” aldermen were told.

One of Chicago’s new LED streetlights. | Kevin Tanaka / Sun Times
One of Chicago’s new LED streetlights. | Kevin Tanaka / Sun Times

At the time, Leslie Darling, executive director of the Infrastructure Trust, gave alternate explanations for the financing detour.

At first, she told the City Council’s Budget Committee that the city was “not interested in privatizing a critical public safety asset” such as streetlights.

Then she acknowledged it would have been “a lot more expensive to use private financing,” because investors were demanding too great a return. That would have required “significant reductions to critical elements” the city was unwilling to make, she said.

Either way, the financing program can only be described as pay-as-you-go.

An estimated $10 million in annual energy savings will be “leveraged to pay for this capital investment,” reducing the cost to Chicago taxpayers, Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld said then.

“The remainder of the cost will come from the city’s general capital program. The Budget Department will be working on an ongoing basis to identify available TIF or bond proceeds, additional operating dollars or other funding sources that will go towards this each year,” Scheinfeld has said.

That explanation was not enough to satisfy Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), chairman of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus.

“No one can give us a specific breakdown of TIF, bonded out dollars and other resources that are specifically going to be pegged to this contract for the next four or five years so that we know how to budget for it and it’s not sort of, let’s play it by ear and see what happens next year depending on either the savings, or how many light fixtures we put up,” Waguespack said then.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) tried to pin Scheinfeld down on how long it would take for the lighting project to pay for itself.

The commissioner would only say that, depending on available rebates, it would take ten years to pay for the “fixture itself.” If you add in the technology that “adds more years to it,” she said then.