Editor’s Note: This is the second part of columnist Curt Sanburn’s report on Honolulu’s planned conversion to LED streetlights. Read the first part here.

The cautionary context for Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s imminent plan to convert Oahu’s 50,000, 2,300-kelvin, high-pressure sodium (HPS) streetlights to brighter, bluer, 4,000K LED lamps — despite public pleas that he consider a cost-neutral and less harsh, 2,700-to-3,000K alternative — certainly calls for some review.

The city of Davis, California, for example, was looking to save $4 million over 15 years by replacing its 2,100K HPS lamps with longer-lasting, high-efficiency, 4,000K-plus LEDs, exactly what Caldwell is now proposing for Oahu streets. (Caldwell has said the city will save 50 percent on energy costs with the new lights — and promised that the lighting will be brighter and whiter.)

Davis’ story was told in the June 2015 issue of Lighting Design and Application, the journal of the national Illuminating Engineering Society or the IES.

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One of Honolulu’s new LED lights casts a sharp glow over Lowrey Avenue.

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By the time the city of 66,000 had replaced about half its lamps with the new LEDs, a full-scale citizen rebellion erupted, the journal reported. Angry letters appeared in the Davis Enterprise newspaper, and irate citizens lined up out the doors of a May 2014 City Council meeting. They complained about glare and light trespass through bedroom windows; they described the new lights as “zombie lights” and “prison lights;” they raised concerns about light pollution and general health with the imposition of what amounted to daylight illumination onto Davis’ nighttime streets. (See last week’s column for a fuller discussion of the effects of 4,000K LED light.)

“The overall concern and disgust for the new lights was palpable,” the journal reported.

Members of the Davis City Council quickly reacted to the public wrath, setting up mock-ups of different options for street lighting — different color temperatures, different intensities — and inviting community input.

Citizens preferred lower color temperatures, less blue, more yellow light; and lower light outputs. Based on the feedback, the council hit replay and negotiated a $350,000 change order requesting that streetlighting in residential neighborhoods not exceed 2,700K, and that it operate at a reduced wattage.

It was, the journal said, “a respectable compromise that mitigates some of the glare and light trespass, and maintains the atmosphere.”

Los-Angeles-Street-Before-LED-Lights 2

A Los Angeles street with HPS light fixtures.

“Hurrah for Davis for having the practical and political courage to choose lighting quality as a valuable part of quality of life in Davis,” wrote the story’s reporter, lighting consultant James Benya, who worked with the city of Davis to come up with its new lighting scheme. Benya noted that the San Diego area is also grappling with LED spectrum issues.

Meanwhile, in a March 15 news story titled “LED Streetlights in Brooklyn Are Saving Energy but Exhausting Residents,” the New York Times reported on The-City-That-Never-Sleep’s $75 million project to convert its 250,000 streetlights from HPS to LED.

Reporter Matt Chaban described the new lights as “optically harsh” and highlighted anguished complaints of Brooklyn residents like Jolanta Benal who said, “It feels like I’m in a strip-mall in outer space … Each day that goes by, there are more and more of them. There’s nowhere to run and hide.”

Los-Angeles-Street-After-LED-Lights

Los Angeles street with new LED lighting.

“The old lights made everyone look bad,” averred Christopher Stoddard, also a resident of Brooklyn, “but (the new LED lights) are so cold and blue, it’s like “Night of the Living Dead” out here.”

“We’re all for saving energy, but the city can do so much better,” Stoddard’s wife, Aida Stoddard, told Chaban.

While noting a few advantages and a few positive comments — facial recognition under the new LEDs is easier for surveillance purposes, joggers might feel safer at night, and the glare might discourage Central Park’s raccoons — Chaban reported that the city’s Department of Transportation was adjusting light poles to minimize light trespass into residences and is considering other shielding and filter devices to lessen the offending pallor and glare of the new LEDs.

According to the Caldwell administration, the public test period for its new LED lamps began about two years ago, when nearly 200 4,000K lamps were installed in Waialae-Kahala, Nuuanu, Manoa and Mililani Mauka. The city breezily concluded that the barely publicized program was a success — that it had received “several” positive comments and “very few” complaints. (See last week’s column for a sampling of randomly sourced complaints.)

“The old lights made everyone look bad,” said a resident of Brooklyn, where similar lights were installed, “but (the new LED lights) are so cold and blue, it’s like ‘Night of the Living Dead’ out here.”

In March, the Sierra Club Oahu Group sent an appeal to George Atta, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting, asking the Caldwell administration to consider a streetlighting retrofit that would lower the LED fixtures’ temperature from 4,000K to somewhere between 2,700K and 3,000K.

The letter also asked that an effort be made to customize lighting for different types of streets and neighborhoods, and, lastly, that the city consider building into its system a currently available, high-tech capability to adjust lamp outputs in real time, depending on the time of night and pedestrian traffic, in order to save even more energy and reduce streetlight glare when it’s not needed.

“The IES does not endorse dimming of streetlight,” the city replied flatly when it answered the Sierra Club’s appeal point by point.

Nevertheless, street-light adjustability warrants its own section in the 2014 IES Roadway Lighting handbook, the bible when it comes to lighting North American streets and highways. Section 5.4, “Adaptive Lighting,” reports on various international efforts to institutionalize standards: The Institute of Lighting Engineers in the UK has established a code of practice, it said, and other international standards are in the making. Even the American Association of State Transportation Officials, or AASHTO, is in on it.

When pressed on the issue of dimming, Robert Koning, director of the city Department of Design and Construction, said the IES didn’t, in fact, endorse dimming; and that IES officials had told the city the same thing in conversation.

“We fully understand lighting level standards,” Koning wrote in an email, “and how they can change throughout the night. However, the city prioritizes keeping the lighting level consistent for those that use the streets at different times of the night for greater public safety.”

Moreover, the added costs and maintenance of dimming were not “attractive” nor “sustainable” for the city’s constrained budget, he wrote.

Meanwhile, in May of this year, Tucson, Arizona, home to more than $1 billion worth of professional astronomical observatories, committed to adjustable dimming operations for its new 3,000K LED street-lighting modernization project affecting some 20,000 street lights. By 2016, Cambridge, Massachusetts will become the first U.S. city to do a complete LED retrofit with adaptive controls and dimming built into the system. By reducing illumination levels but remaining within IES guidelines, Cambridge is reportedly realizing a 77 percent reduction in energy costs versus its previous HPS system. 

So, why should Honolulu lag behind when it can help to pioneer new and more finely tuned — and more humane — streetlighting?

You may have heard that there are 2,500 astronomers in town for two weeks. On Tuesday, Focus Meeting 21 of the 2015 General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union will present the topic, “Mitigating Threats of Light Pollution & Radio Frequency Interference.”

Among the scheduled speakers is Hawaii County Traffic Division Chief Ron Thiel. He’ll present a case study of his project to replace the island’s low-pressure sodium street lights with LED lamps, complete with specialized high-efficiency filters to reduce the polluting blue light to less than one-half of 1 percent.

For more information: The International Dark-Sky Association website is a portal to all things regarding light pollution. Locally, a website set up by astronomers Richard Wainscoat and Kevin Jim, Honolululights.wordpress.com, offers suggestions to help in the effort to bring humane, efficient and cost-effective street lighting to Honolulu. 

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