published Sunday, December 11th, 2011

'Smart' streetlights are bringing the future to Chattanooga today

Don Lepard’s Global Green Lighting Inc. designed and installed these old-fashioned light fixtures with very modern lights on the Walnut Street Bridge.
Don Lepard’s Global Green Lighting Inc. designed and installed these old-fashioned light fixtures with very modern lights on the Walnut Street Bridge.
Photo by John Rawlston.
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  • Chattanooga's lights turning green
    New low-energy LED lights, made by Chattanooga's Global Green Lighting, could spread across the city, saving Chattanooga millions of dollars in electricity costs. The lights are installed in Coolidge Park, Frazier Avenue, and on the Walnut Street Bridge.

Imagine strobing streetlights warning you that a tornado is bearing down on Chattanooga.

Think about those lights flashing in waves to signal the proper direction of an evacuation route in the event of a nuclear or hazardous materials alert. What if the streetlights also could hold plug-in crime surveillance cameras and real-time pollution monitoring sensors?

And what if they saved taxpayers money?

Well, the possibility isn't decades away. It's now -- but only in Chattanooga.

"The world's smartest lights are made in Chattanooga," proclaims the Web page of Global Green Lighting Inc., a company of Don Lepard. The long-time Chattanooga resident and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate is moving jobs here from China to make the most of his company's innovative streetlights, tested first at Coolidge Park.

Last week, Mayor Ron Littlefield touted Coolidge Park's "smart" streetlights to a visiting conference. He said Chattanooga could save $1.5 million on its annual $11 million electric bill by expanding that technology to all of the city's streetlights.

But the mayor's chief of staff, Dan Johnson, has even higher hopes for a lighting system he says he's "sold on."


If the Chattanooga City Council OKs the "smart" lights expansion, city Chief of Staff Dan Johnson said the first places to brighten up will be the Chattanooga Waterfront along the Tennessee River's south shore and the downtown's central business district to M.L. King Boulevard.

"I think the savings is approximately 50 percent, and the streetlights portion of our bill was $4 [million] to $4.5 million in fiscal 2010," Johnson said. "We've been looking at this for months, and I think in the long run it won't cost the city any money. We'll have some front-end startup expenses, but within six months, we'll start saving money."

The deal isn't finalized yet. Johnson and Lepard say negotiations are continuing. But requests for bids have been issued and Global Green Lighting won the nod.

"Basically, [retrofitting] the lighting in the entire city is a huge project, and we're going to take that in steps," Johnson said. "But if everything was done at once, which it won't be, it would total about $20 million."

While the lights may slice the city's power bill $1.5 million a year, EPB's Harold DePriest said it's kind of a wash for the electricity distributor.

"We give the city a pass-through for the streetlights. We sell them that power for the same price it costs us," he said. "Plus, [saving energy is] the right thing to do."


Lepard said he hopes the prospective lights expansion into city streets, along with future municipal streetlight sales, will light the way to as many as 250 new jobs in Chattanooga.

About 80 of those jobs will be imported from China, where Lepard previously contracted for the solid-state components used in Global Manufacturing Alliance Group, the electronics repackaging business he started nearly 15 years ago in Soddy-Daisy.

But Lepard, and David Crockett, head of Chattanooga's Office of Sustainability, have still bigger job plans: streetlight recycling. And smart-light training.

After all, what's going to happen to the thousands of lights being replaced? And who knows how to program and control lights using software programs?

"Sure, we could just take out the old lights and sell the ones that work to another town," Crockett said. "But that doesn't really take that light off the grid, it just makes them somebody else's big energy user."

He said the city will train public works and police officials to "make the most of the new lights."

"But we won't stop there. We hope to export that new knowledge, and train people in other municipalities as they get the new lights," said Crockett.

The smart lights are much brighter than conventional lights. For that reason, they were installed at Coolidge Park to address safety concerns. They also can be brightened or dimmed from a police car, as with a dimmer switch. The fact that they are energy efficient didn't hurt, either.

The Coolidge Park lighting pilot cost $211,000 and was paid for from the $1.8 million Department of Energy stimulus grant that funds the Office of Sustainability.

Crockett, a longtime proponent of using environmental technologies to grow jobs in Chattanooga, is pleased with the outcome.

"It's not very different than what we did with electric buses here 20 years ago," he said. "We [the city] started that company because we gave them an order. That was an early best model. I hope we can do this many, many times."


Lepard came to Chattanooga in 1978 on a football scholarship to UTC. His heart has been here ever since, he said, even though a 30-year career in the solid-state electronics industry has moved him around a bit.

When the 2008 recession hollowed out the building industry, it cut Lepard's mainstay of appliance electronics work to the quick. He had to whittle his Soddy-Daisy staff from above 40 to about a dozen.

Then came the federal stimulus package, he said.

"I saw that there was $3.2 billion in energy conservation and retrofit. So ... I decided that I would get into the lighting business."

His timing was perfect in many ways. Technology breakthroughs already were moving to wed the industries of solid-state electronics and lighting, but few lighting companies were making the switch.

Lepard said he began building only the power supplies for the new lights, but he eventually began building the lights themselves. He soon saw that cities -- even with stimulus help -- "couldn't afford to replace 28,000 lights at one time."

So he began reading again and noticed the so-called "smart grid" -- an electrical network that uses digital technology to be more efficient, economical and sustainable -- was getting most of the $3.2 billion in the stimulus.

"I thought, 'What if we would make these things work with the smart-grid system?'"

He soon found a company in North Carolina called Sensus that had perfected a long-range, wireless meter-reading system.

With cooperation, the two firms have become "the only two companies in the world that have a long-range, wireless-controlled lighting system," Lepard said. "Sensus is selling to the utility companies, and I'm selling to municipalities."

Just after the tornadoes tore through the region on April 27, another light went on in Lepard's mind.

"I was designing some software when the tornado hit in Ringgold, and I was listening to the TV and a man said he couldn't hear the warning sirens," Lepard said.

"I picked up the phone and called one of our engineers and asked if we could program the lights to flash in weather warnings. He said, 'I don't see why not.' So that's what we're doing."

But his greatest pleasure from the innovations is jobs, he said.

"I've spent my career taking jobs to China," he said. "Not anymore. We live in a great nation. We don't quit. Here's a company that's emerging from a terrible recession. And we're staying here."

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about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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Rickaroo said...

I knew the "green" haters would show up to put their negative spin on this but I just wasn't sure how they would approach it. I should have known that the cost (spending) would be at the heart of any argument made by the naysayers, like payingattention. And then, of course, we all know that anything "green" is nothing but creeping socialism, don't we?!

We cannot just stop spending altogether. Whether the austerity pushers like it or not, we are going to have to continue to spend money in certain areas. Just cutting spending to the bare bone is not going to get us out of debt or turn the economy around. The answer lies in smart spending. In my opinion this is a perfect example of not just smart spending but very, very smart spending. It will save money (lots of money) in a very short time, will save energy, will create jobs, and will transform simple lighting into something more multi-functional with perhaps even life-saving potential.

I applaud Don Lepard for his ingenuity and the city for its boldness and vision. This is truly a progressive and wise move. Oops. There's that nasty word, "progressive." Another reason for the naysayers (conservatives) to hate this. Too bad for them. It looks like this is a done deal and they're just going to have to to accept some forward thinking and progress being made and some more green innovation being spread all around the town, whether they like it or not. Mmm. Sweet.

December 11, 2011 at 2:24 a.m.
fftspam said...

And right now every street light on Broad St has multiple lighted snowflakes each with 30+ big bulbs burning 24 hours a day.

December 11, 2011 at 3:06 a.m.
sunnydelight said...

Sometimes you have to spend money to save money. If we wait until we have surplus money to support any project,nothing will ever get done. I agree with Rikaroo.

December 11, 2011 at 7:38 a.m.
pagerone said...

It's about time someone started bringing jobs back home from China, if more US companies would do this the economy would turn around!

December 11, 2011 at 8:10 a.m.
LibDem said...

Adequate lighting for bad economic times. That's a goal we can really live with. Maybe a motto or inspirational inscription.

December 11, 2011 at 8:55 a.m.
rolando said...

Why do I smell "Solyndra"?

Spend $20million today for $1million savings promised tomorrow. It is always "Look how much we saved!" and never "The cost/return ratio is atrocious." All for what? To stop the gang-bangers Littlefield refuses to acknowledge? Simply turning the police loose would do that.

Screw the jobs -- they will quickly disappear back to China when the start-up money stops flowing in...happens every day.

December 11, 2011 at 9:10 a.m.
Lr103 said...

@What if the streetlights also could hold plug-in crime surveillance

Maybe they'll even be able to expose what's really behind all those efforts to get some businesses run out of certain parts of the city. Like the 807 Fire and Ice Club upstanding citizens in cahoots with their LE friends have been working overtime to shut down.

December 11, 2011 at 9:19 a.m.
Salsa said...

807 Fire and Ice club has been working overtime to get ITSELF shut down. It needs no fictional conspiracy theory assistance.

December 11, 2011 at 10:18 a.m.
LibDem said...

You gotta hate those temporary jobs and the people who work them. They're probably just construction types and you know what that means. Not in my neighborhood!

December 11, 2011 at 10:30 a.m.
NorthChatter said...

I own a business and live on the Frazier Avenue and I must say, while I was skeptical at first, I couldn't be happier with the new lighting. Less energy, much brighter light and, so far, much more reliable.

The old lighting was dim and the covers yellowed after about a year and the old lights had to be changed constantly (in the past, on any night, I could usually count at least 4-6 light bulbs that needed to be changed on just a two block stretch of Frazier...and it took forever to have them serviced, sometimes months). So far, I have only seen one light malfunction, ironically, right next to my store (and it was quickly repaired and hasn't malfunctioned since).

I am also happy to report that it has helped in crime prevention. For instance, in the alley that runs to Coolidge next to my shop, which used to be a constant source of graffiti and homeless hanging out in the shadows due to dim or non-working lights, not a single problem since the lights have been installed (I used to have to call the police at least once a month to report some sort of problem).

And the police officers I have talked to that work Coolidge seem to be very pleased with the lights, it makes their job a little easier.

It would be nice if everyone would just put their partisan politics aside for once and admit that this is a pretty good thing for Chattanooga...something innovative, that saves money and energy over the long term (oh, with technology that actually seems to work) and creates jobs for the Tennessee Valley.

Tere have already been a number of officials from other cities who have visited Coolidge to see the lighting system, I have met some of them personally as a few of them have come in my shop to ask about the lights, wanting an unbiased opinion.

December 11, 2011 at 12:05 p.m.
daveszone said...

Great article! It is exciting to see potential savings of taxpayer's money, combined with local job creation and energy savings! I hope that the city leaders move quickly to utilize the technology that is mentioned. It's also good to see positive news regarding Chattanooga! This area is on the cutting edge of so many great accomplishments.

December 11, 2011 at 10:02 p.m.
gertrude said...

Pumped to see this happening in Chattanooga. Fastest internet in the nation and first smart lights!

Here's to hoping it gets pushed through soon!

December 11, 2011 at 11:59 p.m.
cescarbr said...

Immediate energy cost savings, green technology, crime prevention, local company, maintenance savings, brighter lighting and appearance, saving for tax payers, .... what's not to like about this article and project that will benefit everyone that spends time in our city? Way to go GGL and can't wait until the City Council approves this so you can get started!

December 12, 2011 at 8:54 a.m.
sunesideup said...

What better time than “during a recession” to save the city money? Let’s not continue down the same path of bad investments by sticking our heads in the ground and hoping things get better. I for one would like for our city council to be proactive. My vote is to approve the new lighting system and get Chattanooga on a brighter path to the future.

December 12, 2011 at 9:35 a.m.
SoddyDaisyJT said...

Is this the same company that did the lights at Coolidge Park? I was really impressed with the difference the new lighting made. I'm excited that local companies are creating a buzz with new technology like this.

December 12, 2011 at 9:38 a.m.
stillamoc said...

Great paying attention, we look forward to your positive results. Not all things are bad in life! Merry Christmas

December 12, 2011 at 9:56 a.m.
Summer said...

I cannot understand why anyone who oppose this.

1) Mfg jobs in the USA! 2) Savings in maintenance and electricity more than pays for the lights 3) Our city becomes safer!...go to the park and see it yourself.

December 12, 2011 at 10:37 a.m.
jml said...

I could understand the negativity about these lights if they were unproven and more expensive. However, when all you can see is win/win then it becomes a no brainer to move forward on this project. The city wins with less costly lights, the additional tax base from the jobs created and the people of Chattanooga gets better lighting and safer neighborhoods. Let there be light!

December 12, 2011 at 11:12 a.m.
MadeinUSA said...

Please support GGL to bring great jobs and their associated property, sales, payroll and corporate/personal income taxes to Chattanooga. Support the integrity in which they do it. Support the lack of Capitalistic greed by importing jobs rather than products. And support the local decision makers as they see that a total return on investment with tremendous future economic benefit within 6 months (or even 12 months or even 18 months) would outperform any other type on investment vehicle available today. Support the environmental benefit that is immediate. Support quality products that are made in the Chattanooga area and more importantly - Made in the USA!

December 12, 2011 at 11:21 a.m.
nanaof7 said...

The future of Chattanooga is looking bright with all the new technology we’re bringing in. It’s exciting to see a local company address our needs and provide more jobs at the same time. This looks to me like positive spending, which is something our city should get behind

December 12, 2011 at 11:22 a.m.
figurejul said...

I have to say, I have been VERY impressed with the new lighting at Coolidge! I was one that was afraid to be in the park after dark until the new GGL lighting. I think this is a positive move for the city and I can't wait to see the rest of the city lit up with the brighter lights! Very exciting that this will also create new jobs. I agree with jml, seems like a win/win for everyone!

December 12, 2011 at 12:17 p.m.
ChattyCharles said...

I think this is a great development... my job goes into the late hours, so my usual race-walk route takes me through Coolidge Park at night, and those old yellow streetlights did about as much good as carrying a flashlight around. I was always afraid I would get jumped, and had a couple of suspicious characters start to approach me before. These new lights keep the whole thing about as lit as my house usually is, and I feel as safe as I am in there, too! Haven't seen a single shady character since the lights went in, and if they spread throughout the city as planned, I may need to lengthen my route.

And on the financial end of things... it used to seem like there were as many of the old yellow lights in the park off at night as there were on. I tried to run faster through the dark parts but I never felt completely safe, and the city still paid for the burned out bulbs. What a waste! I used to hang with a guy who was big in streetlight maintenance back when I lived in New York, and let me tell you, those old 'yellow' lights drain energy like a taxi full of tourists drains cheese at a real NY pizza restaurant. I can see nothing but good coming from this lights change. Concerncitizen1, as stillamoc said, right now these lights aren't using a penny of taxpayer money... look into the process listed above, this is about as risky financially as buying a machine that makes money and paying the seller with the money it prints. And the article only mentions savings in energy--anyone who spends a few minutes googling LED lighting can imagine how much is saved on maintenance costs, LED lights last a long time and don't use up money on cherry-picker yellow bulb replacement. The taxpayers get safer lighting and less energy costs wasted on inadequate lighting, Global Green gets sales on the light fixtures and the smart-grid connection setup, our community gets the jobs this is generating, the city gets a risk-free start up to this program and from saving energy costs in the long run, and the environment gets the benefit of not putting all its energy into those yellow bulbs other cities are still using. Big thanks to Mr. Leperd and his team for taking this city to the future!

December 12, 2011 at 7:37 p.m.
Outdoorsman said...

What a great article!

I have to agree with most of what ChattyCharles said (although I'd get my tongue tied up if I tried to talk the way he does!) (No offense, Charles! Your pizza comment reminded me of something Dennis Miller from the old SNL might say!)

I've really been impressed with the appearance of these new lights over the past couple of months. It seems like such a let-down when driving away from Frazier onto streets with the old high pressure sodium lights. There is absolutely NO comparison!

I enjoy reading about different energy-saving technologies, and I agree with the previous poster that maintenance savings (which this article did not mention)is a major contributor to the actual savings. I recall reading somewhere that maintenance savings can actually exceed the energy savings!

I think it's so cool that Global Green Lighting is going to move jobs from China back to the United States! It seems like most large corporations (publicly traded companies) are held hostage by quarter at a time. They feel like they MUST exceed profits they made in the same quarter a year earlier. And from what I've seen over the past several decades of watching American jobs first move to Mexico, and then to China in order to meet this insatiable need for more and more profits, these large companies / shareholders don't give a flip about what happens to the American economy or jobs here. Folks, it's gotta stop somewhere! While it seems like jobs will never come back to the states, every journey must begin with a single step. I take my hat off to this Global Green Lighting company for sacrificing profits to bring jobs back to our community and country. Hopefully there might be another company out there that will take a play of Global's playbook and will do the same with their business. And then perhaps a third, and so on.

I am so proud of this City for taking all the initiatives they have over the past 10 years or so which have led to this being a better place to live and has made us a city that folks in other cities and states look up to.

I shouldn't even mention this, but I've got to say I was most-interested in the tone of some the posts. It seems they have a fixation on "bids, bids, bids." In giving away my age (LOL), this reminds me of the old Brady Bunch episode where Jan was jealous of Marcia and kept saying, "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!". After reading some of these posts, my first thought was that some of the negativity could be coming from folks who were not on the winning end of the "bid".

December 12, 2011 at 8:43 p.m.
John_Christmas said...

These smart lights are really a bright idea, I seriously got impressed reading about them. Hopefully, more cities will adopt the idea behind such lighting and the world can be a safer and also more sustainable place for us to live in.

February 8, 2012 at 3:52 a.m.
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