For months now, an internet search for lighting news has easily generated several articles from small, local newspapers reporting to their readership that LED streetlights are coming to town. From Hawaii to, as of recently, Massachusetts (the Patrick Administration having just awarded $7.9 million in grants to fund green energy projects across the state), communities are investing in LED streetlights – replacing outdated, less efficient technologies with the aim of saving money and energy.

A 2010 City Lighting Study by the Electrical and Community Development Departments cited lower costs, greater energy efficiency and light quality, and a prior conversion of all traffic and pedestrian signals to LED as the reasoning behind their decision to bring LED streetlights to Cambridge.

The switch to LEDs had once brought “significant cost savings and environmental benefits” to the City of Cambridge, according to the study, and thus indicated that the city could benefit again from developing its use of LED technologies that are themselves constantly improving. The plan was to replace low-pressure sodium fixtures and some halide lights with LEDs on Inman Street and Rindge Avenue.

On June 6 of this year, the City announced that it will be “implementing major improvements to the existing street lighting system,” and that “every City-owned streetlight will be replaced with new LED lights” in order to “reduce the City’s annual streetlight energy usage.” Citizens wondering if the upgrades will come soon to their neighborhoods can check out an “Interactive Map,” which indicates where the conversions have and will continue to take place this summer in June, July, and August – the work being done on street cleaning days.

The announcement, and gradual installment of the new streetlights, has met mixed reviews by Cambridge residents. Wicked Local recently posted two Letters to the Editor of its Cambridge papers, reflecting opposing views. The first boldly begins, “I walked outside this evening and was shocked,” and goes on to claim that LED lighting is “extremely harmful to sleep patterns,” citing, again, “extreme” backlash allegedly happening in other cities.

In response, the second letter assumes a less “extreme” tone and requests that policy be “based on facts and take into account all trade-offs … in light of all factors.” So, to reconcile this lighting-related conflict, what are the facts about LED streetlights and how they affect our sleep?

An episode of the call-in radio show On Point, hosted by Tom Ashbrook, formerly of The Boston Globe, and produced by WBUR in Boston, aired July 16 of this year and addresses the argument against LEDs brought up by the first concerned citizen – but not as directly as he would probably like. Ashbrook’s guest, Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, begins on an optimistic, if abstract note: “Let’s use light more intelligently, more thoughtfully, more efficiently.”

These words seem to echo how the City of Cambridge explained its decision to bring LED streetlights to Cambridge. If the new LED lights use less energy and are more efficient, wouldn’t they seem the smart way to go?

After Ashbrook and Bogard spend tens of minutes mourning the contemporary American’s inability to see anything in the night sky anymore due to light pollution, hearkening back to the days where one could gaze up and see the resplendent and glorious Milky Way, Bogard points his finger flat out at streetlights as the main culprit: “Overall, the main sources [of light pollution] are streetlights, for sure.”

But about LED streetlights in particular, his opinion is mixed:

“We’ve gone from oil lamps to gas lamps to electric lamps, and now we’re moving to electronic lighting … it holds both promise and peril. And the promise is that LEDs are programmable … But the peril is that … these lights tend to be more intense and we tend to use them at the same levels that we’re using the electric lights.”

The concerned citizen would most likely find satisfaction in Bogard’s use of the word “intense.” But as Ashbrook’s guest goes on to reaffirm that “we are wasting a lot of light, that is money, that is energy, that we don’t need to be wasting,” the installation of LED streetlights all over the country starts to sound more like an opportunity to use streetlights differently than we have in the past.

Ideally, before we get too comfortable and keep the new streetlights glaring as long and late as the others, the City will take advantage of their programmability and provide Cambridge residents with the opportunity to sleep in the (relative) dark of an energy-efficient City.

Jacy Everett
Director of Business Development
(800) 544-4836