An ambitious carbon reduction programme to replace 50,400 streetlights across North Yorkshire with energy-saving LED lamps has been completed more quickly and at a lower cost than expected.

North Yorkshire County Council’s street lighting engineers have pulled out all the stops to complete the LED programme substantially within three years across the country’s largest highways network, rather than the five years it was originally estimated to take.

What’s more, the in-house street lighting team has managed to finish the job significantly below cost. The programme was expected to cost nearly £13m but through procurement, the team has brought that cost down to just over £8m. 

Therefore with capital costs reduced by over £4m and as energy and maintenance savings of £1.285m are projected from 2021/2022, anticipated payback has dropped from over 12 years to under 8 years.

“Against a backdrop of spiralling energy costs and ever-rising inflationary pressures, modernising our streetlights had become essential,” said County Councillor Don Mackenzie, Executive Member for Access

“When the decision was taken to make a substantial investment in converting all the county council’s street lights from incandescent to LED, we were confident of getting a 100 per cent return within ten years. However, our street lighting team and our highway maintenance contractor, Ringway, made such rapid progress that we are realising the benefits of this project much sooner as we delivered the programme early and under budget.”

Completion of the programme means improved lighting quality, a reduction in defects and standardisation of the street lighting estate and a significantly reduced carbon footprint with lower energy usage.

The County Council is also working with many parish and town councils to convert their streetlights to LED lighting.

“Not only is this of great benefit to taxpayers, but it is of great environmental benefit as well,” said Cllr Mackenzie. “This programme, combined with the fact we also turn off many of our street lights for part of the night – between midnight and 5am - will lead to marked reductions in our carbon footprint, in fact the biggest single factor so far to securing the Council’s ambition of achieving carbon neutral status by 2030.”

The County Council’s LED project was also fundamental to North Yorkshire’s two national parks  - the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors - achieving International Dark Sky Reserve status last December - one of the largest areas in Europe to be simultaneously designated.

The Council’s street lighting engineers had agreed that, as part of their street lights replacement programme, they would replace lights across the national parks with warmer tone LED lights (3000 kelvin) rather than the cooler tone LED lights (4,000 kelvin) they were installing elsewhere.

Paul Gilmore, the County Council’s electrical engineering manager who leads the street lighting team is a keen amateur astronomer and was totally behind the bid for dark sky status and keen to help.

He said: “It was an easy thing for us to do and as there were no extra costs associated with the warmer tone lights we were happy to get on board and do our bit to help the national parks.”

The fact the light fittings are installed with a light shield to direct the light beam downwards to reduce light pollution, was also critical to achieving dark sky status.

The Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors are home to some of the darkest skies in the country, with large areas of unpolluted night sky where it is possible to see thousands of stars, the Milky Way, meteors and even the Northern Lights.

“Without that agreement with the County Council in place” said Mike Hawtin, Head of Polyhalite Projects for the North York Moors National Park Authority, “we could not demonstrate to the International Dark-Sky Association that we were in control of lighting across the National Parks and that would have been a major mark against our dark sky reserve application.”

What started out as a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between Paul and Mike a couple of years ago, has now been written into the County Council’s street lighting asset management plan and the Council has written to both National Parks to say it will continue to support the dark skies initiative through its lighting programmes.

“This brings benefits to the county in so many ways” said Mike Hawtin. “Part of my job is to preserve and improve tranquillity in the National Park and dark skies are part of that and it benefits the visitor economy as well as benefiting wildlife.

“We attract people into the National Parks in the depths of winter for the Dark Skies Festival with all the knock-on income from accommodation and hospitality bookings.

“But reduced light pollution and dark skies status is also of benefit to creatures like bats, birds and moths as it protects their foraging, mating and pollinating behaviour.”

Paul Gilmore and his team are only too aware of these issues.  It is partly to protect bats that the county council does not floodlight its historic bridges and it has also agreed with the National Parks that where there is housing development planned for areas where there has been no lighting, it will allow such development to go ahead without lighting.

“In the past,” said Paul, “we would stipulate that housing development should have street lights but we won’t be doing that in future.   I have spent the last 30 years as a street lighting engineer putting lights in and now I am spending my time turning them off or dimming them or making them less bright. But my team buys into that. The more we understand about the impact of artificial light, the more it makes sense.”