How many politicians does it take to change a street light?
In Australia, it would seem, quite a few – but the ACT government can expect strong interest in the proposed sale of the territory's street light network, as one public works expert calls for taxpayers to be shielded from risk in the privatisation.
Reintroducing an idea first floated by then Liberal chief minister Kate Carnell in the late 1980s, Treasurer Andrew Barr used this year's budget to propose selling Canberra's street lights to the private sector to take advantage of the Abbott government's bonus payments for asset sales.
The move would bring the ACT into line with other jurisdictions and save on the cost of running the lights, coming as the government spends $800,000 on the replacement of existing technology with energy efficient upgrades.
The Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia's sustainability director, Stephen Lees, said there would probably be high demand for the sale from private providers, including European service companies seeking to enter the Australian market.
He welcomed moves to upgrade existing technology in the ACT before the sale, which is not expected for about two years.
Dr Lees advocates LED technology – using light emitting diodes – providing better lights more efficiently, with longer lasting service and increasing driver and pedestrian safety.
He said the cost of retrofitting street lights could be recouped in savings to the taxpayer in three to five years.
Power provider ActewAGL confirmed its interest in buying the lights following the ACT budget but Dr Lees warned that taxpayers could be vulnerable to increased charges if electricity companies both own the lights and set the prices for power, as is common in other states.
"The ACT is unique because the territory government is the local government," he said.
"The territory government can make the decision to sell or operate themselves. Elsewhere in Australia the councils pay for it but the electricity providers actually deliver the service and they own the lights and the poles."
He said power companies have no incentive to upgrade technology, which can increase public safety and lead to fewer road accidents.
"I think you will find some new players trying to win that contract as a way of trying to get into the Australian market," Dr Lees said.
"I think it will be very hotly contested."
While the introduction of smart lighting, using censors and lower levels of electricity output, provided some opportunity for environmental benefits and cost savings, Dr Lees said Australia alreadyused much lower levels of power through less bright lighting.
LED lighting offered the potential for cleaner, whiter light that improves visibility, he said.
"The government needs to be very careful about the conditions under which they sell and importantly who takes on the risk of the new technology, whether it is provided by the new supplier or, if in this case, the government retains that risk.
"Private sector organisations often try to transfer the risk to the government. I think the government will have to be very careful in writing specifications on the performance under sale arrangements.''