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The handful of test LED streetlights on Lowrey Avenue between Woodlawn and East Manoa Road casts a harsh glow that is at once ghoulishly pallid and glaring — and easy to spot amid the golden-orange wash of the dated, energy-hogging, high-pressure sodium lamps elsewhere in the quiet Manoa neighborhood.
The test lamps are part of a year-long city trial, before the City and County of Honolulu finalizes a contract sometime in August, according to Department of Design and Construction Director Robert Kroning. The contract, the final specifications and costs of which haven’t been determined, will not only replace Oahu’s 50,000-plus street lights with these bluish-bright LED lamps but will also reportedly call on the contractor to maintain them over an extended period of years, in what Mayor Kirk Caldwell calls a public-private partnership.
Last year, Caldwell touted his LED replacements, which use 50 percent less energy, as being brighter and whiter than the old streetlights. Safety is a key issue: “Very sadly, our city has so many pedestrian deaths,” he told Hawaii News Now’s Ben Gutierrez in June last year when he announced the plan, “particularly with our seniors. And anything we can do to provide brighter light so drivers can see pedestrians in crosswalks is a good thing.” It’s a far cry from the long-ago days when Honolulu used to turn off its streetlights on moonlit nights to save energy.
But astronomers, the Sierra Club Oahu Group, the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board and even some residents of the test area in Manoa aren’t buying what Caldwell is selling, and with good reason.
In an interview, University of Hawaii astronomer Richard Wainscoat explains that the nature of light is characterized by color temperature and quantified as degrees “kelvin.” The city has said that its intended 50,000-plus LED replacement lamps will be 4,000 kelvin. Daylight is about 5,500K, and the old street lamps are about 2,300K. The higher the kelvin, the bluer the light.
Wainscoat recently served a three-year term as president of Commission 50 of the International Astronomical Union. In that capacity he led efforts to protect the globe’s observatories from radio interference and light pollution. He has been raising his voice against the city’s plan for newer, brighter streetlights between work trips around the world, while his team of scientists searches the skies for dangerous asteroids from atop Haleakala.
“I’ve been trying to tell city officials what they ought to do about its streetlight for years, and they just ignore me,” says the brawny 50-ish Australia native.
In March of this year, he published an urgent op-ed in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser titled “Change city’s streetlight proposal now.” He called the 4,000K LEDs “zombie lighting.” He argued for a cost-neutral adjustment of the city’s stated specifications to warmer-colored and less blue though still full-spectrum streetlights that have a reduced temperature of somewhere between 2,700K to 3,000K. He put together a PowerPoint emphasizing the wasted energy and other social, health, and scientific costs of over-lighting Oahu and showed it to some City Council members and to the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board, which, on May 26, sent a letter to the mayor stating its unanimous support for warmer 3,000K streetlights. The board also requested that the council consider drafting a bill for a new — and enforced — lighting ordinance. Hawaii, Maui and Kauai counties already have good and enforced lighting rules, Wainscoat says.
The white light touted by the mayor has a temperature that’s closer to daylight than traditional street lights, he explains. “What colors do you see during the day?” he asks. “All of them,” he answers, “but mostly blue light scattered by the atmosphere. Blue sky.”
He equates 4,000K LEDs to those “obnoxious” car high beams, while his goal of softer street light is more like regular car headlights. “That pain you feel when you see those lights coming at you? That’s your iris contracting. The more your iris contracts the less you see.”
The scientist continues: “There are cells in the eye that link directly to the hormonal system. When they sense a decrease in daylight, they tell the pineal gland to secrete melatonin. That’s part of sleeping. People looking at computer screens before they go to bed have trouble sleeping, because they’ve flooded their system with blue light. Daylight has a lot of blue light in it.”
So, who wants daylight at night? I wonder. Certainly not astronomers and other living things.
So, who wants daylight at night, I wonder. Certainly not astronomers and other living things.
“It’s eerie,” says Elson Honda, a lifelong resident of Lowrey, when I ask him to describe the new lighting on his street. His family house sits between two of the test lights, with another right across the street. He guesses the new lights have been in place for about a year and observes that the old lights were “brighter and a different color.” He says the test lights are “dim” and “dark,” and that a lady’s open carport across the street turns into a black hole at night under the lights. Two other residents — among the four I interviewed at random in the neighborhood — share Honda’s concerns. (The fourth, who works at an office on Lowrey, says they’re okay with her.)
“It’s not working,” says Charles Araki, a neighbor of Honda’s. “It’s too dark. It’s not safe to me. It doesn’t light up the area like the old ones.”
Next door to Araki, a woman watering her plants, who didn’t want to share her name, told me she called a city employee to complain about the new lights and the “weird shadows” they caused, particularly on a big stand of ginger across the street. “I didn’t like it from the beginning, but he never called me back. I think I have the man’s name on my computer,” she says, offering to get it for me.
In late March, Anthony Aalto, chair of the Sierra Club Oahu Group, met with Caldwell and his staff about city and county issues germane to the organization, including the city’s brighter, bluer LED streetlight plan, which his board was concerned about because of its potential impacts on light pollution. Aalto reported back to Wainscoat and his associate Kevin Jim, also an astronomer, that Caldwell was unmoved by his arguments and resolute to move ahead.
As Aalto told it, Caldwell remarked there will always be people who complain, and that if they don’t like it, they should seek relief in court. The mayor’s office didn’t respond to a Civil Beat request for comment.
A horrified friend stands on Lowrey, wide-eyed. He observes that it looks like prison lighting or one of those gas stations. It’s depressing and oppressive, he says; he wants to escape from it, get away from it and back to the campfire glow of regular Honolulu streetlights just down the way.
I look up. The night sky is a flare of scattershot haze between the painful lamp bombs, like those built-in LED flashlights on iPhones, only much bigger and much, much brighter. The night sky, the stars, are gone in this bit of Manoa. As I walk away from the lights, I look down and see my stark shadow carved in the pavement as if with a knife.