In what would be the state's largest installation of LED street lighting, Xcel Energy wants to put up 529 of the energy-saving street lamps in West St. Paul, an experiment that could open the door to more cities making the switch -- and possibly saving money on lighting costs.

Xcel has asked the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to allow the company to proceed with a two-year test of the lights, which have been adopted by cities elsewhere in the country as a money saver. According to some estimates, LED streetlights can give off the same amount of light as traditional models with half the electricity. They last longer than traditional bulbs but cost more up front.

A few Minnesota cities have some LED streetlights, but the West St. Paul test would be the first to bathe an entire community in the brighter, whiter lighting. The project would allow Xcel to test the lights and see how much they cost to install and operate, information it could use to come up with a billing rate for LED street lighting that it could offer more widely. Most Minnesota cities contract with Xcel for street lighting.

"A number of cities are looking at different alternatives for street lighting" to replace existing high-pressure sodium lamps, but until now Xcel has not had an LED option, said Steve Nauer, street maintenance superintendent for Brooklyn Park.

In a test of about 80 LED streetlights, that city has had to put a meter on each one and pay Xcel for the energy used. "I wish they would have picked us instead of West St. Paul," Nauer said.

Brooklyn Park and Worthington, Minn. -- which has LED lights on about two miles of city streets -- report that people like the whiter, brighter glow of the LED lights and that they use 50 percent less energy than the current generation of high-pressure sodium vapor lighting, which cast a yellow light.

"The word on the street is that they are nice and bright," said City Engineer Bruce Westby of Monticello.

West St. Paul is happy to be a testing ground for the lights, said City Council Member Ed Iago. "I like the potential cost savings and the fact that you end up with a much better-lit community all the way around," he said.

During the test, the city would continue to pay its existing streetlight service rate. Costs associated with the pilot would be paid by Xcel, and the city would get new streetlights at no cost to the city. Xcel has told the city it hoped to start installation this year.

Xcel Energy declined to comment on the project, but in its application to the PUC, Xcel said the cost of the pilot is estimated at $17,200. Xcel would purchase the lights from General Electric and install them on Xcel-owned poles in West St. Paul. Both GE and Xcel would monitor their performance.

Every streetlight in town, with the exception of those along Robert Street, would be replaced.

Although LED lights -- short for light emitting diode -- are more expensive than traditional streetlights, Xcel said they have several advantages, including a longer lifespan and lower energy use, reduced maintenance costs, better night visibility, and they include no mercury, lead or other disposable hazards.

"The pilot project will provide information to inform the development of a LED street lighting rate option, such as maintenance requirements and costs, light output, energy consumption, failure rates, and customer feedback," the PUC application said.

The PUC has not yet scheduled the matter for action. The next step is to start a 30-day comment period.

Xcel chose West St. Paul for the test because its lights were due for replacement this year, because 529 lights provide a good scale for study and because the city is well located for easy observation by Xcel officials and officials from other cities considering such lights.

The company proposed submitting a status update in September 2013 and a final report within 60 days of concluding the pilot in September 2014. Depending on the results Xcel may ask the commission to approve a new LED street lighting rate.

Xcel said it would work with the city on communications to make sure residents know what is being installed and when the new lights would go up. "The residents of West St. Paul will also have the option of contacting the company with any questions or concerns," the company said.

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287