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One of the most beloved songs in the islands, “Honolulu City Lights” by the Beamer Brothers, could evoke a different vision should a proposal to switch out 53,000 streetlights be implemented.
The Caldwell administration is seeking to award a $50 million contract to convert yellowish high-pressure sodium lights to white-ish light-emitting diodes (LED) islandwide.
The project calls for replacing mostly “cobra head” style streetlights (named so because they look like the snake) throughout Oahu and will include the decorative streetlights on Kalakaua Avenue in the West Loch subdivision and North King and Ilalo streets in Kakaako.
The LEDs are expected to cut energy costs in half and could have longer lifespans. The lights are also supposed to be more sophisticated, allowing the city to connect them through a network that could alert workers of potential problems for a more timely response.
But a Hawaii environmental group, The Outdoor Circle, is warning that the LED conversion will sacrifice a “sense of place” provided by existing “warmer” lighting fixtures.
That concern is buttressed by a June report from the American Medical Association that offered guidance to reduce what it described as the “harmful human and environmental effects” of “high intensity” street lighting.
The AMA warned that the lights can disturb sleep rhythms and impair night driving or even increase the risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease. They can also contribute to light pollution, the association said. Despite those potential problems, the AMA said it still supports the use of LED lighting, as it decreases use of fossil fuels.
The Washington Post reported just last week that some mainland cities are “taking another look” at LED lighting in the wake of the AMA warning.
The Outdoor Circle said it hopes for the same here. It warned in its September newsletter that “Waikiki is experiencing its worst environmental and public health crisis in generations.”
The AMA recommended minimizing what is known as “blue-rich” environmental lighting by using the lowest emission of blue light possible to reduce glare.
Blue light refers to emissions from some LEDs that appear white to the naked eye.
“The excess blue and green emissions from some LEDs lead to increased light pollution, as these wavelengths scatter more within the eye and have detrimental environmental and glare effects,” the AMA report said.
The first generation of LED outdoor lighting fixtures, ones reported to still be in wide use, rely on 4,000 Kelvin LED units. (Kelvin is a color scale used for lighting.)
The AMA advised using 3,000K or less. The lower intensity was described by the medical group as “more pleasing to humans” and with “less of an impact on wildlife.”
The Outdoor Circle favors the same approach.
“You can change the look of an entire island,” said Brian Bagnall, president of the group’s recently formed Greater Waikiki Branch. “It’s like white-washing the whole island at night. There needs to be much more caution and public dialogue.”
The city has put out a new call for contractors to install the lights. Department of Design and Construction Director Robert Kroning said a previous contractor did not pan out because it wanted to change the terms after the contract was awarded, he said.
City spokesperson Andrew Pereira responded Tuesday to the concerns of The Outdoor Circle. “I am not sure if they are aware of the new specifications,” he said.
In a follow-up email, Pereira explained that under the new plan, “one of the functions will be the ability to dim the lights.” He said the “majority of the LEDs” under the new plan will “emit less blue light than what was required” under the previous plan that fell through.
But the technical requirements of the latest plan that was posted last month indicated that the project will use a mix of 3,000K and 4,000K for the streetlights. The more powerful lamps (13 percent of the total) appear to be for major roadways and arterials while the weaker ones would be for local and collector roads.
What about possible harm to humans?
“There have been varying degrees of information and misinformation about the effects of LED lighting on human health and the environment,” Kroning said. “The information is complex and difficult to place in context. This is due in part to the complexity of investigations, lack of experimental control and the ease of which results can be generalized.”
Regardless, Kroning said the new plan addresses some of the concerns.
The Outdoor Circle, formed in 1912, was responsible for prohibiting billboards during its earlier years. Later successful battles include banning signs that trailed behind airplanes.
The group is dedicated, said Bagnall, to keeping Hawaii “clean, green and beautiful.” But new causes emerge, such as opposing efforts to place advertising on public transportation vehicles and at stations.
Concerns about LED lighting were raised over the past year or so at Waikiki Neighborhood Board meetings. The opening of the Ritz-Carlton Residences along Kuhio Avenue brought with it outdoor staircases lit all night.
“People have been driven crazy,” said Bagnall, calling the effect a “visual blight” and “light abuse.”
While Waikiki is Hawaii’s tourism mecca, it is also home to tens of thousands of residents.
Oahu’s dilemma is in contrast to Hawaii and Maui counties, where restrictions are in place to control lighting so it won’t interfere with astronomy work on top of Mauna Kea and Haleakala.
Bagnall complained that the city does not enforce Waikiki Special District Guidelines requiring outdoor lighting to be “subdued or shielded” to avoid producing glare and “light spillage.”
Ideally, said Bagnall, the state should convene an “exterior lighting panel” to address LEDs, but it may be too late. He pointed to Honolulu International Airport, H-1 and Nimitz Highway where 4,000K lights have already been installed by the state Department of Transportation.
According to The Washington Post, some organizations, like the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, said the lights “pose less risk than the AMA suggests.”
The AMA report, said the center, is based on extended exposure to high-intensity LEDs and the blue light hazard of LEDs “is probably not a concern to the majority of the population in most lighting applications.”
At minimum, The Outdoor Circle would like to test such assumptions. It said no safety data was provided for the Oahu plan, and no environmental impact assessment was made.
The city did test the LED lights in select neighborhoods for more than a year.
Former Civil Beat columnist Curt Sanburn wrote last year that some residents used words like “eerie” and “weird” to describe the lights. Sanburn wrote that concerns about the high-intensity LEDs were raised at that time, too.
The kerfuffle has caught the attention of the City Council.
In August 2015, 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.”
Zoning and Planning Chair Trevor Ozawa, whose district includes Waikiki, said, “I’m glad to hear that the effort to convert streetlights to LED is finally moving forward with a networked control management system; it’s critical that the intensity of the lights are able to be adjusted accordingly, especially in Waikiki.”
The councilman said the LEDs will prove to be “the best choice” for Waikiki in terms of energy efficiency, cost savings and visual improvement for pedestrians and motorists at night.
But Ozawa added, “I hope that the city administration has taken into consideration the comments and feedback that they received during its initial attempt for the conversion.”
If a contract is awarded, the LED conversion is expected to be completed by April 2019.
Meanwhile, the administration has been installing LEDs elsewhere.
Nearly 40 light fixtures were recently installed at six locations along Kuhio Beach Park in Waikiki.
“Improving parks has been a goal of my administration from day one, and I’m glad this LED project at Kuhio Beach Park makes the facilities safer for both locals and visitors alike, while also producing substantial energy savings,” Caldwell said in a press release.
The Waikiki LEDs, which cost $15,241, are separate from the LED conversion proposal, said Pereira.
Kroning said the city believes the LED conversion can be paid for through the electricity cost savings over a 10- to 12-year period or sooner. It is not providing any upfront funding.