Eden Prairie is the latest city to illuminate its streets with brighter, whiter LED lights, joining a growing trend of metro cities turning to LED to save money and conserve energy as the technology improves.

LED bulbs — short for light-emitting diode — are more expensive than traditional high-pressure sodium ones to install, but they last longer, use less energy, need less maintenance and provide better night visibility.

"Just like computers, everything gets better," said Steve Nauer, street maintenance superintendent in Brooklyn Park. "I think LED is the way to go."

Eden Prairie is piloting the new lights, installing seven LED lights last month in streetlights between Flying Cloud Drive and Prairie Center Drive. If it's successful in lowering maintenance costs and saving energy over the winter, Public Works Director Robert Ellis said the city plans to eventually retrofit all 100 city-owned streetlights with LED.

"It saves money, so it's the smart thing to do," he said.

Last year, Robbinsdale retrofitted about 40 downtown streetlights with LED lights and has since seen energy costs decrease by 60 percent, translating to about $1,000 a year, Public Works Director Richard McCoy said. Plymouth has replaced park building lights and parking lots with LED lights. And Xcel Energy, which is hired by many Minnesota cities to handle street lighting, has installed more than 500 LED streetlights in West St. Paul as a two-year test — the largest installation of LED streetlights in the state.

The changeover hasn't come without criticism. Years ago, when Brooklyn Park first installed LED bulbs, even Nauer said he wasn't initially a fan of the different aesthetics. But over time, he said he was convinced of its success as technology improved. The city now has LED bulbs in about 1,000 streetlights and every traffic signal in the city.

"Now, we're hearing nothing but positive comments on it," he said.

From retrofitting all traffic signals with LED lights, Nauer estimates the city went from spending about $7,500 a month on electricity to less than $3,000 a month with LED bulbs. That lower cost, along with less maintenance needed on the bulbs, has proved that it's worth the initial investment. The standard bulbs can cost a fourth of the cost of LED bulbs, but Nauer said all LEDs have cut energy costs by 50 percent.

"LEDs have come a long way," he said.

'A no-brainer'

In Eden Prairie, the pilot program to replace seven 250-watt light bulbs last month with the more efficient 100-watt LED lights cost the city $3,108. The city contracted with Plymouth-based Lighting House USA to make the bulbs and have city staff install them. To save money, Ellis said the city reused the light units and replaced the circuits, saving a significant amount of money. The lights could last as long as 20 years — much longer than traditional lights that burn out in seven to 10 years, Ellis said.

He said the city hasn't heard any complaints so far in the month the brighter LED lights have replaced the yellow glow of traditional streetlights. "But it's different from what people are used to," he said.

LED lights are just one part of broader efforts citywide to conserve energy and cut costs.

In 2006, Eden Prairie started a broad plan they dubbed the 20-40-15 initiative, aiming at boosting energy efficiency in buildings by 20 percent and increasing fuel efficiency by 40 percent by 2015.

It's not just about the buzz of being "green" — more importantly, City Manager Rick Getschow said, it's saving the city substantial money.

So far this year, the city has improved energy efficiency by 15 percent and bumped up fuel efficiency by 32 percent by doing things like adding motion sensors to control lights in meeting rooms, curbing wasted electricity. And this year, Eden Prairie replaced a city SUV and public safety car with two Chevy Volt electric cars.

Up next, Ellis said, the city hopes to add an electric car-charging station that can be open to the public at City Hall and solar panels on the community center.

The City Council and mayor "saw this as a way to lead by example," he said of conserving energy to cut costs. "It's almost a no-brainer."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib