Chester hopes for green light source

CHESTER -- Chester County leaders hope to use the sun's rays to guide those walking around the county's most prominent intersection at night.

Sound unusual?

In South Carolina, it is. But local officials hope that focusing on green technology -- like solar-powered street lights -- will help them land a grant to pay for their sunny project.

"We couldn't find anybody, especially on one of these exit ramps off of an Interstate, that was using these solar lights," said Chester County Councilman Joe Branham. "We may be able to better secure grants to do this (project) because of the green factor in it."

Branham, along with County Councilman Brad Jordan, pushed for the solar lights to be included in the county's master plan for Exit 65, the intersection of Interstate 77 and S.C. 9 and the county's major industrial artery.

Safety is the primary reason for the lights. Leaders said they've had some problems with people crossing S.C. 9 at night as they walk from the motels on one side of the highway to the restaurants on the other. Some pedestrians have nearly been struck by passing vehicles.

Adding crosswalks and solar lights along sidewalks would make the area safer, officials said.

To pay for the project, the county is eyeing highly sought-after federal funds that are administered by the state Department of Transportation.

The grant could be worth as much as $200,000 and would be accompanied by a $50,000 match from the county, said Sherron Marshall of the Catawba Regional Council of Governments, the agency working with the county to obtain the grant.

"We all hear, 'Go green,' and we don't sometimes know ways to do it," Marshall said. "This would be a concrete way that a county could do that."

Should they get the needed money, leaders plan to place the lights down both sides of the exit, extending less than a mile in each direction.

The quantity of lights is determined by spacing, and spacing depends upon the lighting level desired, according to Jerry Regenbogen, a landscape architect in Charlotte who helped design the master plan for Chester County's main transportation corridor.

Regenbogen estimates that 100 lights would be needed for the project.

Why go solar?

A solar-powered street light works like this: A solar panel is attached to a street light that contains a battery. When the sun's rays fall on the panel, energy is transferred to and stored in the battery. At night, the battery powers the light.

The lights' batteries typically have a 5-day life in case of inclement weather.

Proponents of solar lighting say maintaining the technology is inexpensive and the lights are immune to traditional power outages. Meanwhile, critics claim the technology is inefficient and the lights aren't bright enough. Some say the light designs aren't pleasant-looking, either.

"There will always be detractors," said Joe Zdenek, chairman of Henry's Knob, a local environmental group affiliated with the S.C. Sierra Club. "Especially from the other energy sources. ... (solar-powered lighting) will be cutting into their profits."

Traditional power companies provide cheaper energy now, but the S.C. Energy Office expects that to change. The office estimates that between 2015 and 2020, solar prices will be competitive with conventional energy rates.

"Solar, in general, has had a slow start in South Carolina," said Erika Hartwig, the agency's renewable energy coordinator. "Part of the reason, from what I've been able to tell, is because we have such cheap energy. ... Here, people don't really have that extra incentive to invest in renewable (energy)."

Except for a lighted walkway at the University of South Carolina, Hartwig said the energy office isn't aware of any solar lighting projects in other counties, although she said that doesn't mean there aren't any.

"It's a unique project," she said of Chester County's plan. "A lot of the installations that have been solar-related are usually from very proactive and forward-thinking people who want to do it for the right reasons, not necessarily because they'll expect to see a quick payback."

Solar projects do save money in the long run, Zdenek said. He mentioned a Chicago firehouse that installed solar panels and saved $1,000 a year and a solar-powered system at a California pump station that expected $100,000 in savings.

"There are considerable savings to be made once you invest in the initial apparatus," he said. "And I think that's what some of the local governments hold back on because it may cost more money to begin with. But in the long run, it works out."

That's why county leaders say they chose the green option. And this goal could make the county stand out.

"They're a step ahead of most people," Zdenek said. "Chester sounds like it's on the cutting edge."