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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Bright lights, big questions

On Beckwith Street in the Atlanta University Center, students can see the difference between LED lights and high-pressure sodium-vapor streetlights
  • Thomas Wheatley
  • On Beckwith Street in the Atlanta University Center, students can see the difference between LED lights (left) and high-pressure sodium-vapor streetlights (right)
Some Atlanta streets will be brighter thanks to a funding award from the state. CL reader Daniel Bryant writes in a guest op-ed that he has concerns about brightness and accountability. He also wonders why Atlanta is opting for one technology over another.

Most people don't notice things like street lighting. The burnt-orange glow that illuminates Atlanta at night is just another part of our landscape and neither here-nor-there. It just is. But thanks to a $1 million loan, Atlanta's nighttime glow will now be white with new energy-saving streetlights.

The loan from the state's Transportation Infrastructure Bank will fund the conversion of 10 percent of Atlanta's streetlights. And while it sounds like a no-brainer - who doesn't want to save energy and brighten up the city? - is it the right move?

For some longtime Atlanta residents, this is a familiar story. Only 25 years ago, the city converted its white mercury-vapor streetlights to the current orange high-pressure sodium-vapor, or HPS, streetlights. According to a 1988 Atlanta Constitution article about the city's streetlight program, residents were told that the reason for the change was to save energy and to "cut through the fog" that sometimes blankets the city.

The energy savings talk was short-lived. Officials decided that instead of replacing the old 400-watt lights with equally bright 250-watt lights, they would instead replace them with 400-watt HPS lights, which were two-and-a-half times brighter than the old lights - the rationale being that brighter lights reduce crime. Taxpayers got brighter lights but no energy savings.

Now that Atlanta begins another round of streetlight conversion, we can finally return to the moonlit nights of the past and get rid of the orange nightmare foisted on us as "energy savings" 25 years ago.

Unfortunately, the city appears to be on track to make the same mistakes it did back then. The city has, without much fanfare, converted most of the lights on Joseph Lowery Boulevard and Beckwith Street near the Atlanta University Center to LED, or Light-Emitting Diode, lights.

If you haven't seen them yet, you should. They are bright. Jail-yard bright. And while bright lights may help spot escaping inmates at the penitentiary, a study conducted by the University of Southampton concluded that "no evidence could be found to support the hypothesis that improved street lighting reduces reported crime."

The city has not released documentation on its website concerning the conversion, the reason brighter lights were chosen, or the reason LED lights were chosen over induction technology, which the U.S. Department of Energy called "one of the best kept secrets in energy-efficient lighting."

Induction lighting, invented by Nikola Telsa, is a lesser-known alternative to LED lighting that uses an electromagnet rather than electrodes to create light. While it is as energy efficient as LED lighting, it emits less glare, and is less expensive. You may have seen these lights in Arizona, California, and New Jersey, where they have been widely installed.

Many cities across the country - Los Angeles, most notably - have already converted to LED or induction lights. The California city's Bureau of Street Lighting tested dozens of lights, asked for public input, and over a period of five years, converted all of its lights to LED fixtures, which cost 63 percent less to operate than HPS fixtures. The lights also drastically reduced light pollution.

Other cities have taken the "top down" approach Atlanta seems to be taking, such as Arlington, Virginia, which has been flooded with complaints over brightness of the LED lights it installed in 2012. Los Angeles, by comparison, has had relatively few complaints.

The city's Department of Public Works, which is leading the conversion process, has not yet identified what streets or areas will receive the investment. So it's too early to say whether the fixtures on the interstate, which have been dark for more than a year now, will get switched out. Of if Atlanta's lower income neighborhoods, some of which don't have adequate lighting, will receive the new technology. Part of the loan will pay for hiring a consultant to identify what areas should be targeted. The rest will fund the first phase of the conversion project.

Let's hope the public gets a chance to weigh on where that investment should be targeted - and what technology they'd want the city to use. If the city wants to get this right, it's going to take diligence and public involvement. If we don't this time, we might be stuck with patchy and inefficient lighting for another 25 years.

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