Smart city technology: Los Angeles LED street lights

Ed Ebrahimian prefers to fly home to Los Angeles in a window seat – and at night. As his plane approaches LAX, he wants to take in the sprawl of light from the Pacific Ocean to the National Forest at the city’s eastern edge. "Los Angeles is like spilled milk, it’s all over the place" said Ebrahimian, the former director of the city’s Bureau of Street Lighting. In 2018 he retired from this role, but his work lives on in some 180,000 LED streetlights, a project measured not just in lumens but in kilowatt hours. It’s also measured in tax dollars saved. For more than a decade, he led the effort to swap out the old, power-hungry lights that gave the city a yellow-orange glow and replace them with efficient LEDs the color of the full moon. Roughly 40,000 streetlights remain to be converted.

The $105.5 million project, financed by Bank of America, will be paid back over the next 10 years. That’s possible because of the inherent efficiencies in LED lighting – the city is repaying the loans from the $10 million annually that it is saving on electricity, and from an additional $2 to $3 million in reduced maintenance costs.

The LEDs also open up new possibilities for the burgeoning city, which is slated to host the 2028 Olympics. The light posts can now be used as critical communication devices, conveying weather data, CO2 levels – even enabling gunshot detection. “LEDs are kind of a gateway to the smart city,” Ebrahimian said.

A history written in light

Streetlights tell a city’s story. That’s why Ebrahimian, who cloaks his passion for the subject behind his professorial air, has gathered dozens of antique fixtures in a micro-museum inside the bureau’s office. It’s open to the public one day each month, for just 30 minutes.

The museum walls are adorned with regal lanterns like a cast iron lamp that stood sentry on Sunset Blvd. in 1924 and looks like the Statue of Liberty’s crown. These early fixtures suggest a city with civic ambition and even flair.

By the turn of the 21st century, however, America’s second largest street-lighting system was a bit too historical. The annual power bill for the high-pressure sodium lights installed in “cobrahead” fixtures ran to $15 million and strained the bureau’s budget, which can only be increased by special ballot measures.

“When I became director in 2005,” recalled Ebrahimian, “I knew we’d have to start doing something, or we wouldn’t be able to survive.” The solution was hyper-efficient LED technology, which by 2008 had advanced enough that the bureau secured loans through the city Department of Water and Power to replace approximately 140,000 street lights.

In 2013, Bank of America provided approximately $40 million in financing to replace the initial loan. The money was part of the bank’s $500 million green bond, a financing program that funds low-carbon and sustainable business projects. “I think it's extremely important for any energy efficiency program to pay off the loan in a few years from the savings it generates,” Ebrahimian said.

The easy part is over

The 140,000 streetlights from the conversion’s first phase reduced energy usage by 63 percent and reduced carbon emissions by almost 50,000 metric tons a year. Buoyed by the project’s success, Ebrahimian opted to convert the remaining 80,000 streetlights, a project that is now half done. “We said, ‘We've done the easy part, let’s forge ahead and complete the whole program,’” he recalled.

In this second phase of the project, the bureau is retrofitting 400 different styles of decorative fixture. The financing, however, has been much simpler. In 2016, the bank gave the city a second loan for $26.4 million, and then in 2017 a third loan for $39.3 million. “I think once we complete it, which we are on schedule to do in the next four years, we will be probably the only city in the whole world that has converted all the fixtures to LED,” Ebrahimian said.

When that’s done, the only limits to the system’s applications will be the imagination of city officials. The efficient lights, for example, will lighten the load on power circuits, which has allowed the city to install 82 curbside electric vehicle charging stations.

As Ebrahimian notes: “Street lights are not only for lighting anymore.”

Originally published 9/21/2018