Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Shedding Light on Houston's LED Streetlights

For the longest time, those familiar orange-ish looking street lights have been a fixture in our cities. Fly into a city like Detroit or Chicago on a clear night and you can see the golden glow of the city's street grid. But as many have pointed out and many have experienced themselves, that is beginning to change. We're beginning to see our cities in a different light (and that's not just a euphemism).

Cities around the country (or, maybe more accurately, their electric providers) have been transitioning to LED lights in great frequency, not only to save money, but also because of the increased safety that residents feel with more visible light in their neighborhoods. Make no mistake, the LED lights do a much better job in providing visibility. Cities including New York, Seattle, San Jose, Los Angeles, Boston, Phoenix, Detroit and San Francisco have already transitioned to LED street lights. Some cities, like Detroit, have embraced the lights. Others have found them irritating, and others have already moved on to alternative LED lights.

CenterPoint Energy

Here in Houston the talk about LEDs started in 2009. The City of Houston partnered with CenterPoint Energy to test LED street lights in south Houston's Bridgegate Subdivision through an LED pilot program. The city agreed to convert its lights to LEDs in 2014, but it wasn't until late in 2015 that CenterPoint Energy actually began installing the LED lights throughout the rest of the city. It was something that I hadn't heard about until the streetlight near our former apartment in Houston Heights was changed. For a few days I thought that there were oncoming vehicles (with LED headlights) as we pulled out of our driveway. No, it was just new streetlight.

Now, let's pause here for a local lesson in civics. Not many people may know that the City of Houston City Council hosts a weekly session on Tuesdays at 1:30 PM, where residents can approach the mayor and council with any sort of concern. With a new City Council (now serving a four-year term) and a newly-elected mayor, it is a great time for residents to begin mounting their concerns, and seeing whether new council members (and incumbent members too), will take up their cause.

(As a side note: I've put together the Houston Urbanist and Civics Calendar which is a collection of meeting times for government and quasi governmental agencies in Houston. It includes City Council, Harris County Commissioner's Court, various management districts, TIRZs, and special events related to urban planning and architecture. Please use it as a way to be more informed on opportunities to engage in dialogue with respect to your neighborhood. Promotion over, back to lighting!)

A high-pressure sodium light (left), and a new LED light (right) on North Main Street at East 24th Street

There are always a wide range of topics at City Council, including the always entertaining excessive utility charge, or various complaints about city services. At times, things might seem off topic, or even a bit uncomfortable. But, if you have public comment, that can be expected. A few weeks ago there was an interesting discussion that seemed to create a buzz at City Council: Houston's new LED street lights. A buzz may be an overstatement, but the topic seemed to demand more attention than I had expected.

Jonathan C.C. Day in the Woodland Heights is leading the charge against the LED lights currently being installed. There is now even a petition making the circuit, asking the City of Houston (and ultimately, CenterPoint) to reconsider the blue-ish LED bulb currently used, advocating for a warmer LED bulb, much like those that were installed in Davis, California. Other Houstonians have complained about the lights but admit that they'd rather have a light as opposed to no lights.

Now, before jumping on the bandwagon and signing that petition, there are some benefits to the LED lights. First, they'll certainly brighten up your neighborhood. For those that aren't directly underneath one of these lights, they're of great benefit. You can see much more, and with greater detail. Especially in areas that are prone to crime, this is a welcomed change. The LED lights also save a great deal of energy, as up to 80% of the electrical energy is used in producing light, as opposed to around 10% for normal bulbs. The lights last longer also, resulting in lower maintenance costs. While the fixture itself may cost more, the operation and maintenance of each light is much lower over a longer period of time.

But sure, not all is good in the hood when it feels like your street has been turned into a car dealer's lot. Many have complained about the intensity of these new lights. Gone is the familiar orange glow, replaced with a sterile-like light. There hasn't been an immediate health risk presented with the new LED lights, but opponents suggest that we are using more light than is necessary, which can affect sleep cycles.

Los Angeles Skyline Comparison, CenterPoint Energy Presentation
While the LED technology seems to be the correct path, it may be worth looking at whether an alternative is possible. Proponents of the change here in Houston are not asking the City and CenterPoint to simply overthrow the idea of LED lighting, but are asking for a change in color temperature. The current 4000k may be too cool of a color, while suggestions seem to settle on a light in the 3000k range, which could look similar to the glow we've been accustomed to in high-pressure sodium lights. Admittedly, this may be a tough switch given the amount of resources already committed to the project. Day does provide a compelling financial breakdown of the potential cost savings in switching to a lower-temperature and lower-wattage light, but doesn't account for the cost of installing the lights.

Sure, Davis, California made the switch, but it cost them. It actually cost the city $350,000 to replace just 650 lights. That's $538 a light! Houston has almost 200,000 street lights maintained in public rights of way. At a time when city budgets are already crunched, would this be a wise investment? Would CenterPoint foot this bill for the city? Would the perceived safety improvements from the brighter LED lights be something residents are willing to compromise for the replacement cost? At this point, I would expect not. There seem to be more questions than answers.

But, it can never be too late to learn from our analyses and better plan for future lighting needs. At this point, Houston seems to be sitting where Davis, California sat. Unfortunately, the magnitude of the project may make it too difficult to completely stop at this point. Houston may not have the luxury of paying the upgrade costs up front, like Davis did. Yes, Houston began a pilot program in one neighborhood in 2009, but is only now seeing resistance to the program, 7 years later. This may be a case where public input was not as widely solicited as possible, coupled with the tension of the introduction of new technology after agreements like this are made. (Were LED lights with lower color temperatures available in 2009? Likely not. But if they were, they were likely much more expensive than they are now.)

This case reiterates the importance of the public input process in decisions that are made within cities, especially a city like Houston, the 4th largest city in the country.  In an analysis of the Davis, California LED situation, a thought was offered that rings true for any city; "For any survey of public preferences to be effective, an organized program to solicit input from a broad cross-section of the public must be undertaken prior to implementation." Could the public input process have been more robust? Probably. Were there people that did not speak out against the lights at the time? Again, likely. Will everyone be happy with a final decision? In a city of over 2 million people, where some are worried about increased security, while others are worried about their sleep cycles being affected, most certainly not.

Recently Astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted a picture of Washington, DC viewed from space. It's unmistakable that certain parts of the city appear to be a brighter white, instead of that orange-ish glow we're accustomed to seeing in aerial imagery or from higher elevations. No doubt, our cities look different.

So, wherever you are on the street lighting spectrum, we must take note that changing technologies will change the way we see our cities. Cities that have been installing LED lights have seen their light pollution decreased and darker streets illuminated. Those are great things. LED lighting also changes the way our cities are photographed and captured in film, as spelled out in this article. Hollywood will likely never see our cities the same, and neither will we. That old orange glow is seemingly gone for now.