NorthWestern Energy is outfitting 43,000 streetlights across Montana with new energy-efficient bulbs, as old, potentially hazardous fixtures are recycled.
Falling prices have made the LED streetlight bulb a cost effective option for NorthWestern, especially as manufacturers warn the utility that traditional high-pressure sodium lights might not be available much longer.
NorthWestern has already switched out close to 2,500 sodium bulbs in Billings and Helena.
Four Corners Recycling of Bozeman is recycling the old lights, some of which contain mercury. The EPA says animals that consume it in high doses can experience slow growth, reduced reproduction and death.
That’s why NorthWestern spokesperson Brandy Powers says the old sodium bulbs are being recycled, instead of dumped in a landfill.
“It’s only 15 milligrams of mercury that could be contained in just one high-pressure sodium light bulb," Powers says, "and that seems relatively minute, but when you look at it on a grander scale, 43,000 streetlights are going to be changed out, that adds up, and you can see how quickly this hazardous material could become an environmental concern."
NorthWestern expects to continue the four-year, $24 million replacement program in Bozeman, Butte, Havre and Missoula next year, as well as Great Falls in 2021.
Powers says the utility doesn’t yet know how much money the new LED bulbs save, though they use half the electricity of a sodium bulb, and last two to three times longer.
Recycling the old lights isn’t free, however. NorthWestern estimates that part of the project will cost $120,000, which breaks down to nearly $3 per fixture.