By Deborah Lynn Blumberg
Around the time of the 2008 credit crisis, when local government aid was cut for many Minnesota cities, officials in the small City of Wells turned off the decorative lights that for years had shined over downtown streets.
The decision left the light poles that line Main Street, which are wired for two lights, shining with just one bulb. Leaving the poles’ lower-hanging decorative lights dark saved the city money during difficult financial times since the dual fixture heads drew large amounts of power.
But shutting off the decorative lights also detracted from the ambience of downtown. Residents returning home after eating dinner at a downtown restaurant or seeing a show at the city-owned theater were often left fumbling in the dim, yellow light for their car keys. In 2018, a group of residents asked if the decorative lights could be turned back on. At around the same time, city officials began paying closer attention to just how much money Wells was spending to maintain its city lights.
The city’s public utility workers were changing out a lightbulb somewhere in town around every two weeks, says CJ Holl, city administrator for the city of about 2,200. That amounted to 25 to 30 new lightbulbs a year, which represented 10-15% of the city’s lights. Maintenance was becoming a headache.
So, the City Council and Wells Public Utilities worked together to come up with a solution. The ensuing LED light initiative has saved the City of Wells a significant amount of money while making downtown both more secure and appealing. Wells won a League of Minnesota Cities 2020 City of Excellence Award for this initiative.
“The LED initiative created a much more inviting and a safer looking downtown,” says Holl. “It’s very energy-efficient and it’s green. It’s been a really neat project, and our citizens have been extremely positive.”
Toward the end of 2018, city officials decided to relight the decorative fixtures and to replace all downtown lights with LED lights, which have a longer life span than the traditional mercury vapor lights that had been used for years.
LED lights are brighter and more efficient. They use just a fraction of the power of traditional lights and can last more than a decade versus traditional bulbs’ three- to five-year life span. “Using LED, we’re able to get a better quality of light at a fraction of the cost,” says Holl. “Now, we may go a year without getting a call to replace a bulb.”
Jeff Amy, the city’s public utility superintendent, and Holl reviewed a plan to replace lighting citywide. They decided it made sense to start replacing lightbulbs in high-traffic areas downtown, starting with Main Street. Two-person crew members from Wells Public Utilities volunteered their time to swap out the lightbulbs between other projects they were working on.
As the new LED lights started to shine on Main Street, business owners and residents alike began to take notice. “We got lots of compliments from businesses,” says Holl.
Brad Heggen, a downtown business owner and president of the economic development authority (EDA), was immediately struck by the new LED lights. “It adds a certain aesthetic charm,” he says. “The whiter, brighter light is much improved over the old ones, and it’s good for the safety and security of businesses and of residents in general.”
Heggen runs his real estate business, Brad Heggen Realty, from a building constructed in the 1800s that he bought back in 2001. He also rents office space to other business owners, and they too are pleased with the improved lighting. In addition, the new lights are an excellent selling point for prospective tenants, Heggen says.
“People that come from outside our community are just really impressed with our infrastructure,” Heggen says, “which includes the city’s lighting.”
Expanding the project
Residents who noticed the new LED lights started to ask if the older, yellow lights near their home or local park could be switched out as well. Local law enforcement was also enthusiastic about the light initiative since better lighting in high-traffic areas and intersections helps to increase both driver and pedestrian safety.
With the success seen downtown, city leaders decided to expand the project. “We thought, if we could do it downtown, we can do it citywide,” Holl says. “Wells Public Utilities modeled it out, and we realized that it wasn’t going to be a huge amount of money.”
So, city leaders decided to undertake a citywide conversion to LED lighting. They began by replacing bulbs on main thoroughfares and on high-traffic roads in and out of town. Of the nearly 300 lightbulbs across Wells that ultimately need to be swapped out, Public Utilities’ workers have already completed around one-third.
“At first, we thought it would take four to five years to change them all out,” says Holl. “However, we’re ahead of schedule. It’s great because now we’re saving the taxpayers money since we’re spending less on our electrical service.” With most major roads in town now complete, work has started to shift to Wells’ 80 acres of city parks, plus other commercial and residential areas. Holl hopes that the project will be completed by the end of summer 2021.
Wells expects to ultimately spend $86,000 on its LED light initiative, but down the road, the project will end up saving the city a ton of money. Annual savings in power expenses, lightbulbs, and ongoing maintenance is around $15,000, and rebates will total around $21,000 for switching to energy-efficient lighting.
Wells realizes the cost savings, and Wells Public Utilities will keep the rebates to cover their cost for completing the project. “It’s quite a significant amount of money that comes back,” Holl says.
The rebates come from Wells Public Utilities and the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (SMMPA). In recent years, SMMPA has invested in wind and solar energy, and the agency has also looked at car charging systems for their member towns.
Figuring in the cost of the LED initiative, the rebates, and the power savings, Wells expects to break even on the project in just a few years. After that, ongoing savings each year will make a big impact on the city’s finances.
Holl says that savings help to support the city’s general fund. That will allow the city to possibly reduce property taxes or to use general fund money for other purposes. For example, the city might put savings from the LED initiative toward the Police Department, the Fire Department, city parks, streets, or city maintenance.
“Reducing an expense, as this project did, frees up funds to be used elsewhere without asking more from our taxpayers,” Holl says.
Planning for future generations
Wells City Council Member John Herman, who’s also the owner of the Wells-based Herman Manufacturing, says the duo of sizable financial savings and bringing more energy efficiency to town is a winning combination.
“Whether you’re a little town or a big town, sometimes you just struggle to pay your bills without raising taxes,” he says. Introducing ways to be more energy-efficient can go a long way toward helping to ease that struggle.
“In the long run, this just seemed like the right thing to do,” Herman says.
He always tries to approach big decisions by thinking about future generations. “You have to plan not for today or tomorrow,” says Herman, “but for your children and your grandchildren.”
To officials in other towns contemplating embarking on a similar LED light project, he recommends breaking up the initiative into several phases. “Don’t get overwhelmed by the total project,” he says.
In addition to creating safer and more attractive city streets, the LED initiative has also made Wells city leaders more aware of current trends in green technology, Herman says. Now, Public Utilities is considering updating some of the city’s generators, which date back to the 1970s, and replacing them with new energy-efficient ones.
“Projects like the LED initiative really do make you take a closer look at everything,” Herman says. “It makes you say, ‘How can we as a city be better, how can we be more energy-efficient?’”
Deborah Lynn Blumberg is a freelance writer.