Imagine strobing streetlights warning you that a tornado is bearing down on Chattanooga.
Think about those lights flashing in waves to signal the proper direction of an evacuation route in the event of a nuclear or hazardous materials alert. What if the streetlights also could hold plug-in crime surveillance cameras and real-time pollution monitoring sensors?
And what if they saved taxpayers money?
Well, the possibility isn't decades away. It's now -- but only in Chattanooga.
"The world's smartest lights are made in Chattanooga," proclaims the Web page of Global Green Lighting Inc., a company of Don Lepard. The long-time Chattanooga resident and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate is moving jobs here from China to make the most of his company's innovative streetlights, tested first at Coolidge Park.
Last week, Mayor Ron Littlefield touted Coolidge Park's "smart" streetlights to a visiting conference. He said Chattanooga could save $1.5 million on its annual $11 million electric bill by expanding that technology to all of the city's streetlights.
But the mayor's chief of staff, Dan Johnson, has even higher hopes for a lighting system he says he's "sold on."
If the Chattanooga City Council OKs the "smart" lights expansion, city Chief of Staff Dan Johnson said the first places to brighten up will be the Chattanooga Waterfront along the Tennessee River's south shore and the downtown's central business district to M.L. King Boulevard.
"I think the savings is approximately 50 percent, and the streetlights portion of our bill was $4 [million] to $4.5 million in fiscal 2010," Johnson said. "We've been looking at this for months, and I think in the long run it won't cost the city any money. We'll have some front-end startup expenses, but within six months, we'll start saving money."
The deal isn't finalized yet. Johnson and Lepard say negotiations are continuing. But requests for bids have been issued and Global Green Lighting won the nod.
"Basically, [retrofitting] the lighting in the entire city is a huge project, and we're going to take that in steps," Johnson said. "But if everything was done at once, which it won't be, it would total about $20 million."
While the lights may slice the city's power bill $1.5 million a year, EPB's Harold DePriest said it's kind of a wash for the electricity distributor.
"We give the city a pass-through for the streetlights. We sell them that power for the same price it costs us," he said. "Plus, [saving energy is] the right thing to do."
Lepard said he hopes the prospective lights expansion into city streets, along with future municipal streetlight sales, will light the way to as many as 250 new jobs in Chattanooga.
About 80 of those jobs will be imported from China, where Lepard previously contracted for the solid-state components used in Global Manufacturing Alliance Group, the electronics repackaging business he started nearly 15 years ago in Soddy-Daisy.
But Lepard, and David Crockett, head of Chattanooga's Office of Sustainability, have still bigger job plans: streetlight recycling. And smart-light training.
After all, what's going to happen to the thousands of lights being replaced? And who knows how to program and control lights using software programs?
"Sure, we could just take out the old lights and sell the ones that work to another town," Crockett said. "But that doesn't really take that light off the grid, it just makes them somebody else's big energy user."
He said the city will train public works and police officials to "make the most of the new lights."
"But we won't stop there. We hope to export that new knowledge, and train people in other municipalities as they get the new lights," said Crockett.
The smart lights are much brighter than conventional lights. For that reason, they were installed at Coolidge Park to address safety concerns. They also can be brightened or dimmed from a police car, as with a dimmer switch. The fact that they are energy efficient didn't hurt, either.
The Coolidge Park lighting pilot cost $211,000 and was paid for from the $1.8 million Department of Energy stimulus grant that funds the Office of Sustainability.
Crockett, a longtime proponent of using environmental technologies to grow jobs in Chattanooga, is pleased with the outcome.
"It's not very different than what we did with electric buses here 20 years ago," he said. "We [the city] started that company because we gave them an order. That was an early best model. I hope we can do this many, many times."
Lepard came to Chattanooga in 1978 on a football scholarship to UTC. His heart has been here ever since, he said, even though a 30-year career in the solid-state electronics industry has moved him around a bit.
When the 2008 recession hollowed out the building industry, it cut Lepard's mainstay of appliance electronics work to the quick. He had to whittle his Soddy-Daisy staff from above 40 to about a dozen.
Then came the federal stimulus package, he said.
"I saw that there was $3.2 billion in energy conservation and retrofit. So ... I decided that I would get into the lighting business."
His timing was perfect in many ways. Technology breakthroughs already were moving to wed the industries of solid-state electronics and lighting, but few lighting companies were making the switch.
Lepard said he began building only the power supplies for the new lights, but he eventually began building the lights themselves. He soon saw that cities -- even with stimulus help -- "couldn't afford to replace 28,000 lights at one time."
So he began reading again and noticed the so-called "smart grid" -- an electrical network that uses digital technology to be more efficient, economical and sustainable -- was getting most of the $3.2 billion in the stimulus.
"I thought, 'What if we would make these things work with the smart-grid system?'"
He soon found a company in North Carolina called Sensus that had perfected a long-range, wireless meter-reading system.
With cooperation, the two firms have become "the only two companies in the world that have a long-range, wireless-controlled lighting system," Lepard said. "Sensus is selling to the utility companies, and I'm selling to municipalities."
Just after the tornadoes tore through the region on April 27, another light went on in Lepard's mind.
"I was designing some software when the tornado hit in Ringgold, and I was listening to the TV and a man said he couldn't hear the warning sirens," Lepard said.
"I picked up the phone and called one of our engineers and asked if we could program the lights to flash in weather warnings. He said, 'I don't see why not.' So that's what we're doing."
But his greatest pleasure from the innovations is jobs, he said.
"I've spent my career taking jobs to China," he said. "Not anymore. We live in a great nation. We don't quit. Here's a company that's emerging from a terrible recession. And we're staying here."