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February 24, 2012 > Unique street lights being tested in North Dakota

Unique street lights being tested in North Dakota

By Jill Schramm, Minot Daily News

MINOT, N.D. (AP), Jan 27 - Light standards that are doing their jobs don't tend to draw attention to themselves. So only the observant might have noticed the solar panels and wind turbines that are energizing two street lights on a frontage road along U.S. Highway 2 through Stanley.

The green energy lights are a demonstration project of Solargy Lights of Neche, located near the Canadian border in northeastern North Dakota. Although the company continues to refine its lighting product, it already has orders that it expects to begin filling this summer.

``We have lots of interest from around the country, around North America,'' said company founder Jim DeSeyn.

The company is working to enhance the controller that operates the self-contained system. The development team wants to create a ``smart'' controller that could automatically adjust lighting in response to motion or length of day or that could trigger a heating element for the system battery on frigid days. The battery stores energy for use at night when there is no sun and the wind might be calm.

DeSeyn's involvement with solar energy came about through a business associate in California, who invited him to look into a solar light concept that interested her. The idea caught his attention not only for its business potential but because it had the ability to help people, he said. However, the original product needed to be completely re-engineered.

DeSeyn said he put a lot of thought into development and marketing before taking the step of contacting a university that could offer the kind of technical assistance that he sought. Although he had a choice of universities from around the country, he decided not to look further after contacting the University of North Dakota's Center for Innovation. With the aid of the center, the company now has a team working on the project, a second office in Grand Forks and a website at

DeSeyn, who has a background in engineering, product development and logistics, is president of Solargy Lights. Project manager is Alex Johnson, Ph.D., an instructor in UND's Department of Technology who has experience in industrial technology in the private sector. Serving as consultant is Yong Hou, Ph.D., who has business experience in the United States and China. He teaches at UND and conducts research on green energy.

The project employs Martin Hellwig of Stanley, an electrical engineer with a master's in business administration. Hellwig teaches at Fort Berthold Community College and does consulting on renewable energy. Rakesh Subramanian, a UND graduate student in mechanical engineering, also is assigned to the project.

The team spent last summer developing the technology, using a light standard set up near Grand Forks as its pilot project.

DeSeyn spread the word in western North Dakota about the product and received a call from Ward Heidbreder, Stanley's city coordinator. Stanley welcomed Solargy Lights to erect two prototype street lights on a frontage road on the south side of Highway 2. The lights went into operation in September. Operating off the electrical grid, they run on a controller that sets the brightness and hours of operation.

Heidbreder said the city is interested in green energy options not just for itself but as something that could attract environmentally minded companies to Stanley.

Stanley will decide whether to keep the lights after the year's demonstration. So far, Heidbreder said, ``We are pretty impressed with them. ... Their functionality through the cold weather has been great. Personally, I am very pleased with the product and with the company.''

Since erecting the prototypes, Solargy Lights has increased the wattage of the wind turbine and is considering a higher grade solar panel. Having the two energy sources is an advantage.

``Even if the sun isn't shining, hopefully, the wind is blowing. There are days when you don't always have sun and you might not have wind so we need to make sure that the battery has enough charge to keep the light going,'' Johnson said. ``Right now we are very concerned just to get a system out there that's going to be very reliable.''

The LED lights in the prototypes require considerably less energy than conventional lights. The 70-watt LED is comparable to a conventional, 300-watt high-pressure sodium light.

The cost comparison between the green energy lights and conventional lights depends on the application. However, the team calculates the lifetime cost of a Solargy Lights system would be less or at least comparable to conventional, depending upon the setting.

As an example provided by Solargy Lights, a customer installing a conventional street light at a remote site might pay as much as $6,000, depending on the availability of a transformer. The typical electricity bill for a traditional 250-watt, high-pressure sodium lamp would be another $222 a year, and the life of the lamp, which can be expensive to replace, is about four years. In the same setting, a Solargy Lights customer initially would pay $7,500 for a hybrid street light but would recover the price difference in four years of operation.

The Solargy Lights customer also has the advantages of a system that doesn't disturb the landscape or neighborhood with power lines. The system requires no activation time and can be installed in as little as four hours, according to the company.

Hellwig said the system is drawing interest in the oil patch because of the number of remote areas where an electrical power system doesn't yet exist or might not be feasible or cost-effective to install. Solargy Lights also is considering supplying solar panels for other energy uses. One possible use is transmission of monitoring data from oil well sites.

Solargy Lights' goal is to have a line of products that can be customized to fit the needs of different consumers.

Manufacturing is being done by outside firms, but DeSeyn doesn't rule out the potential for a manufacturing plant in northeastern North Dakota at some time in the future. The company anticipates that the controllers could be made locally.

``It's a very big investment, but it's definitely doable,'' DeSeyn said.

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