LED Streetlights Are Giving Neighborhoods the Blues

Early adopters of LED street lighting are struggling with glare and light pollution.


| Spring 2017



LED

The challenge with LEDs, as with so much other energy-saving technology, is to improve energy efficiency without creating more problems for humans and the nonhuman environment.

Photo by Robert Ashworth

You may have noticed them going up in your town’s streets and parking lots: a new generation of pole-mounted lights that pour down a cool torrent of lumens from an array of light-emitting diodes. Like me, you might have welcomed this development. LEDs are, after all, the most energy-efficient lighting option on the market. They can last twice as long as ordinary sodium-vapor streetlights, and their prices have dropped to within range of the competition.

If the switch to LEDs had needed any more support, it came from growing evidence about climate change. In the United States, street lighting accounts for a whopping 30 percent [PDF] of all the energy used to generate electricity for outdoor lighting. Another 60 percent goes toward lighting parking lots and garages, and much of that energy is still produced by fossil-fired power plants. Consultants at the firm Navigant, in Chicago, have  [PDF] that the United States could save 662 trillion British thermal units — the energy needed to power 5.8 million typical U.S. homes for one year — by converting all remaining non-LED outdoor lighting to LEDs.

Armed with statistics like these, and a mandate to cut energy use wherever they can, municipalities across the United States have installed more than 5.7 million outdoor LED street and area lights. Other towns and cities in Canada, Europe, and Asia have added millions more over the past decade. Amid this rush to adopt outdoor LEDs, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) stressed energy efficiency as the biggest advantage of the new technology while cautioning cities to also consider light output and color quality. But now that ordinary folks have got an eyeful of those new lights, some municipalities are coming down with a case of the early-adopter blues.

For some, those first LED lights have been a fiasco. The harsh glare of certain blue-rich designs is now thought to disrupt people’s sleep patterns and harm nocturnal animals. And these concerns have been heaped on the complaints of astronomers, who as far back as 2009 have criticized the new lights. That’s the year the International Dark-Sky Association, a coalition that opposes light pollution, started worrying that blue-rich LEDs could be “a disaster for dark skies and the environment,” says Chris Monrad, a director of IDA and a lighting consultant in Tucson.

When my city of Newton, Mass., announced plans to install LED streetlights in 2014, I was optimistic. I’m all for energy conservation, and I was happy with the LED bulbs in my home office. But months later, returning from a week’s vacation in rural Maine, I was shocked to find my neighborhood lit by a stark bluish blaze that washed out almost all of the stars in the night sky.

Lately, lighting companies have introduced LED streetlights with a warmer-hued output, and municipalities have begun to adopt them. Some communities, too, are using smart lighting controls to minimize light pollution. They are welcome changes, but they’re happening none too soon: An estimated 10 percent of all outdoor lighting [PDF] in the United States was switched over to an earlier generation of LEDs, which included those problematic blue-rich varieties, at a potential cost of billions of dollars.