The good news: Throughout the United States, government agencies at all levels are achieving energy savings of more than 50 percent by replacing their existing roadway and facilities lighting fixtures, usually High-Pressure Sodium lamps (HPS), with much more efficient Light-Emitting Diode, or LED, lamps.

All well and good, but the quality of light emitted by LEDs, particularly as their color temperature approaches or exceeds 4,000 Kelvin, has become a sticking point. Numerous street-lighting controversies have erupted nationwide during the past two years even as bureaucrats and suppliers tout the energy savings. 

The culprit is the ultra-bright 4,000-Kelvin LED streetlights with their intensely white, almost bluish glare. The lights are known in some quarters as “zombie lights.” The higher the color temperature, measured in Kelvins, the bluer the light. These powerful LEDs, known as full-spectrum or “blue” lights, mimic daylight (5,500K), with all of its blue light. The glare generated is of particular concern to astronomers (it blots out dark night skies), environmentalists (it affects sea birds, sea turtles, and other living things), and regular folk (blue light is ugly and wrong at night; it affects circadian rhythms, stimulating the human body to believe it’s daytime at night).

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

In several cities and towns, the choruses of complaint have compelled government officials to adjust the color temperatures of existing and planned LED street lighting projects downward from 4,000K to 3,000K or below.  

The bad news: Just last week, the State of Hawaii’s Department of Transportation confirmed that, beginning in January 2016, in the interest of energy savings, it will retrofit more than 15,000 highway-lighting fixtures on state-managed highways on four islands.  The vast majority of the fixtures are on Oahu and will be converted to 4,000K LED lamps. (Happily, on Maui and at state harbor and airport facilities, retrofits will not exceed 3,000K.)

Among Oahu roadways administered by the state: Kamehameha, Farrington, Kalanianaole, Likelike and Pali highways, Nimitz/Ala Moana Boulevard, Kunia Road, Moanalua Road, Ft. Weaver Road, and the H-1, H-2 and H-3 freeways.

The DOT project is self-funded by its energy savings and therefore was immune to the normal public scrutiny of the legislative budgeting process. Neither an environmental assessment nor an environmental impact statement were required. A contract has been signed with Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls, which first made its proposal in 2011; materials and equipment have been purchased and shipped. The completion date is June 2017, according to DOT.  

The state project arrives hot on the heels of the recent ruckus over Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s plan to retrofit all of Oahu’s 50,000-plus street lights with 4,000K LED lamps. “Brighter white light,” Caldwell advertised when he unveiled the plan last year. But then various influentials urged the city to consider “warmer,” cost-neutral, and less polluting 2,700-to-3,000K LEDs instead, with lower blue-light emissions. On Nov. 2, the city quietly announced it was withdrawing from talks with contractor Ameresco, citing irreconcilable financial differences. The city is preparing a new request for proposals, which, it’s rumored, will ask for lower color temperature LEDS with adaptive controls to further limit light pollution during the late-night hours when lighting needs are lowest.

“I think the city has come out of this quite nicely,” says longtime dark-sky advocate and University of Hawaii astronomer Richard Wainscoat. “It will now be able to take advantage of the next generation of LED lighting with a lot more energy savings.

“If they had waited, they could have saved a lot more energy. The big advances in LED technology have come in the last two years. But it appears that they are locked in to older technology by the way they’ve done it.” — Richard Wainscoat, University of Hawaii astronomer

“But the state…I think they jumped the gun a little bit. If they had waited, they could have saved a lot more energy. The big advances in LED technology have come in the last two years. But it appears that they are locked in to older technology by the way they’ve done it.”

In a statement to Civil Beat, a DOT spokesman seemed to acknowledge the timing issue when he noted the qualities of the lamps in the retrofit project “at the time of contract signing.” The projected savings, he said, would be 43 percent in electricity costs. As previously reported in this column, the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts will see savings of 77 percent when its 2700K and dimmable streetlight retrofit is completed in 2016.

Wainscoat, Hawaii’s point man within the International Dark Sky Association, refutes DOT’s claim to Civil Beat that it worked “in association with the International Dark Sky Association” to shape its project.

“I don’t think that’s true,” he says. “We attended meetings with people over there, but they seemed to be solely focused on energy savings.”

Wainscoat tells the story of the state Legislature’s Dark Sky Committee, which, in 2011, recommended a new law capping the color temperature of all future state LED lighting at 3800 Kelvin.

“The committee got it exactly right, but then a lobbyist got in there and convinced another committee to increase the cap to 4000K.” Act 287 was signed into law on July 9, 2012 and became effective on July 1, 2014.

“If that tinkering with the draft law hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be where we are,” Wainscoat says.

I ask Wainscoat if there’s a difference between residential street lighting, in the city’s case, and highway lighting, the state’s kuleana.

“If the highway’s in California,” he answers, “it doesn’t have to be lit at all, only the intersections. But it’s common practice in Hawaii to light them continuously,” he says, pointing out that sections of H-3 and Kamehameha Highway (between Wahiawa and Haleiwa) remain unlit.

Wainscoat reports that, right now, some academic colleagues in Canada (“They’re the world’s experts on light pollution,” he says) are creating a computer model of  exactly what will happen if Oahu lights are replaced by 4000K LEDs — and what would happen if the color temperature were reduced to 2700K, which he calls the best of all possible worlds.

“We’re expecting those results very soon.”

Meanwhile, on Dec. 18, the venerable Hawaii watchdog group The Outdoor Circle addressed the LED issue.

After commending the city for its about-face, the groups statement to Civil Beat continued: “We strongly urge the State to follow this example and modify its current plans to install 4000K LEDs across the state. The noted negative effects associated with these LEDs, specifically from the increased amount of blue light that they emit, will adversely impact many parts of Hawaii’s fragile environment.”

Must we brutalize Hawaii’s night sky simply because a state agency is slow?

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