In a sudden turn of events Monday, the City and County of Honolulu tersely announced it was withdrawing its request for proposals for Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s controversial, island-wide streetlighting retrofit.

The surprise announcement followed months of controversy over Caldwell’s plan to convert all of Oahu’s 52,000 streetlights from the orange-ish, 2,300-Kelvin, high-pressure sodium fixtures currently in use to brighter, bluer, 4,000K LED lamps, a switch that Caldwell said would result in energy savings of 50 percent.

The explanation for the reversal from Robert Kroning, director of the Department of Design and Construction, stated that “the award was rescinded because the selected bidder, Ameresco, after award, required the city to agree to other financing arrangements which were not offered in the RFP; therefore, they could not execute the contract.”

One of Honolulu's new LED lights casts a sharp glow over Lowrey Avenue.
One of Honolulu’s LED lights casts a sharp glow over Lowrey Avenue during a trial project. Curt Sanburn

For over a year, the LED lamps had been tested in a few neighborhoods, where reactions were mixed at best. Residents used words like “eerie” and “weird” to describe the lights. They complained about the black shadows cast.

Astronomers backed by the University of Hawaii expressed their concerns about the brighter lights and resulting light pollution that would affect telescopes at Haleakala and Mauna Kea. They pleaded with the administration to consider a 2,700K to 3,000K LED alternative, with lower blue-light emissions.

“Right now, we’re going to wait for the report from the Department of Design and Construction as to how all this occurred, how the RFP was written, and why they were all set to go with Ameresco. It just doesn’t make any sense.” — Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi

The Sierra Club Oahu Chapter urged the city to consider the rapidly evolving technology for adjustable lighting, which, depending on the time of night and how busy the streets are, can save even more energy and reduce streetlight glare when it’s not needed.

In May, the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board sent the mayor a letter stating its unanimous support for warmer, 3,000K streetlights.

Meanwhile, around the country, swapping out the old high-pressure sodium fixtures for the more energy efficient LED lights was meeting with resistance. Residents of the college town of Davis, California, went on the warpath against 4,000K LEDs once they were installed. The city was forced to make a $350,000 change order and reduce the streetlights to 2,700K fixtures.

Brooklynites’ complaints against New York’s retrofit made the New York Times. In October, the Times published an impassioned opinion piece called “Ruining that Moody Urban Glow,” in which novelist and Brooklyn resident Lionel Shriver wrote that the city’s 4,000K streetlight retrofit plan “amounts to mass civic vandalism.”

The city of Cambridge in Massachusetts will complete its retrofit, complete with dimmable LEDs, in 2016 and will reportedly save 77 percent in energy costs versus its previous HPS system.

Back in Honolulu, the huhu finally caught the attention of the City Council. In August, the Budget Committee passed a resolution asking Caldwell for more information about the content, status and progress of the city’s retrofit effort, more information about the technologies permitted under the RFP, as well as the evaluation criteria and a list of vendors who were qualified to provide LED lights.

The committee gave the administration until the end of the year to issue its report.

At the meeting, Council Chair Ernie Martin asked the administration to seriously reconsider its course of action. “We’re talking about a long-term commitment,” Martin said. “We’re talking about a minimum of 10 to 15 years or so. Whatever we select, we’re stuck with it for a while. We want to make sure that we get the best value for our taxpayers.”

At another Budget Committee meeting, this one on Oct. 21 during which the panel spent hours grappling with rail costs, the chair, Ann Kobayashi, gave Virginia-based Solar LED Alliance four minutes to make the case for its product.

In a phone interview, David Estes, founder and owner of Solar LED Alliance, said his product has a 10-year, 90,000-hour performance warranty and full dimming capability. Plus, the light fixtures are made in the U.S., he said — except for the LED chip, which is made by Nichia of Japan.

On Wednesday, after news of the city’s cancellation rippled through Honolulu Hale, Kobayashi said she thought the city’s reversal was a good thing.

“As written, the RFP was so narrow that only one company, Ameresco, could respond to it — and the administration paid someone $80,000 to produce it,” Kobayashi said.

“When they get around to producing the new RFP, I hope they open it up,” Kobayashi said. “Right now, we’re going to wait for the report from the Department of Design and Construction as to how all this occurred, how the RFP was written, and why they were all set to go with Ameresco. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

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