In a stunning reversal, the Niagara Falls City Council has decided not to take action on a plan to replace all of the city’s current incandescent street light bulbs with light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

The decision came just two weeks after council members had directed City Administrator Nick Melson and Mayor Paul Dyster to bring them the plan that would allow the Falls to enter the green energy revolution in a big way. Some council members had even appeared impatient that city administrators had not moved quicker on the proposal from National Grid. 

Council Member Chris Voccio had called it “pretty close a no-brainer.”

The conversion would not only provide the city with brighter lights, but would save the Falls an estimated $166,812.66 in annual electric costs.

But with a recommendation to begin working with National Grid on the conversion project placed in front of them, the same city council members that had expressed an urgency to get the project under way, suddenly, balked at the plan.

“Is this our only option?” Council Member William Kennedy asked City Controller Dan Morello.

“There are other vendors that can be worked with,” Morello said. “But under this (proposal), National Grid would still maintain the system.”

National Grid executives said the conversion program had been made possible by a modification to the company’s tariff structure by the state Public Service Commission. Currently, National Grid owns all the street lights in Niagara Falls, The city pays the utility a maintenance fee to take care of the lights and keep them operational, as well as for the energy costs to power them.

“Under the conversion program, the city would buy (LED) bulbs and National Grid would install them and the city would get the savings (from the more energy efficient bulbs),” National Grid’s Lead Program Manager Marc Gschwend said. “The LEDs are cleaner and brighter.”

National Grid has 5,439 “pole lights” in the city, with a value of $27 for each incandescent bulb being used. Under the conversion program, the city would buy the current lights from National Grid at a cost of $149,355.

But Gschwend explained that the city would also be eligible for a clean energy incentive for each LED light that is installed. The incentive would total $306,325, resulting in a cost conversion credit to the Falls of $156,970.

In a letter to Gschwend, which would have started the conversion process, Dyster noted that because of the credit created by the incentive the city could be excused from paying the upfront costs to National Grid.

National Grid executives did tell the City Council that there was also a conversation option that would allow them to purchase the entire street light system from the utility. That option was referred to as “buying the (light) poles.”

“Buying the poles carries more of an upfront cost,” Morello cautioned the council. “Maybe $2 to $4 to $5 million in upfront costs.”

Such a plan would also require the city to take over the complete operation and maintenance of all the Falls’ street lights

But in response to questioning by Council Member Kenny Tompkins, Morello said the city’s average savings on electrical costs under a complete purchase plan could be between $1.2 million and $1.5 million a year.

That appeared to set council members on a path to stop the plan they had previously asked city administrators to execute.

“You know, I think we need to take another look at this,” Voccio said. “I mean, this isn’t urgent that we act on this.”

Council Chairman Andrew Touma and Kennedy also echoed the idea that, “It’s not urgent” to begin the LED conversion.

A clearly frustrated Dyster pointed-out that a buy-out of the street light system from National Grid would present large and un-budgeted new costs to the city. 

“The current conversion proposal has zero out-of-pocket costs to the city,” the mayor said. “And we don’t have a division of city government to operate a street light system.”

Voccio was not persuaded by the mayor’s argument.

“I think this is an important thing, not an urgent thing,” Voccio said. “It would be irresponsible to go forward without looking at those options.”

National Grid execs warned that the utility has not done an estimate on what price it would ask for the city street light system. Dyster suggested that “looking at other options” would require the city to issue requests for proposals (RFPs).

Voccio and other council members downplayed the warnings and, instead, directed Morello to “research” other possible conversion plans and report back in two weeks.