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IDA Pens Op-Ed on Phoenix’s New Lights

This screen shot from the NASA Blue Marble map shows the incredible amount of light coming stemming from Phoenix, Arizona

On Saturday, 13 June 2015, the Arizona Republic published the following guest editorial by IDA Executive Director Scott Feierabend on the subject of the pending conversion of street lights in Phoenix, Arizona, to white LEDs.


Viewpoint: We should get energy-efficient street lights after discussing the best option — not before.

It’s not easy to find a truly dark nighttime spot in the Valley of the Sun. With population growth have come new infrastructure, congested city streets and urban sprawl. The city’s ascendancy as a major American urban center has also brought a lot of light to formerly dark desert nights.

The city of Phoenix is poised to replace 95,000 streetlights during the next two years with a white LED lighting system described as “sterile” and whose “brighter beams hurt quality of life.” (“Phoenix converts streetlights to brighter LEDs,” March 5).

City officials quoted in the story clearly identify saving money as the primary reason for making the change. The Tucson-based International Dark-Sky Association fully supports the city’s efforts to save money with new energy-efficient streetlights, but we submit that the city’s proposal is fundamentally flawed.

In the name of fiscal prudence the city is rushing toward the installation of bad street lighting on a schedule that allows for no compromises. Its preferred lighting fixtures are overly bright, create significant glare (threatening public safety), and emit unnecessary amounts of harmful blue light into the nighttime environment (threatening urban wildlife). It is unclear whether the public will accept the proposed new streetlights, which are certain to diminish the quality of life in the Valley.

The IDA, and its 300 Arizona members, urges the City Council to do the right thing for Phoenicians and their night sky. The Council should immediately: (1) rescind the existing request for proposals for a citywide LED streetlight installation, (2) commission an independent study of the street lighting issue that is informed by sound scientific research and the capabilities of current lighting technology, and (3) fully engage the public by soliciting resident feedback on the lighting options through demonstration installations.

Simply put, the concerns that have driven Phoenix’s choice of glary, blue-rich white LEDs can be addressed with far better solutions at comparable cost.

Cities that rush into LED conversion projects face a potentially sharp public backlash. Residents of cities across the U.S. have complained about the harsh quality of new white LED streetlights. In some cases residents have demanded the removal of new lights at great expense to the taxpayer. Witness the cautionary tale of Davis, Calif.: After the city installed 650 new white LED streetlights last year, resident complaints resulted in the lights’ complete replacement at a cost of $350,000 to taxpayers.

While Phoenix’s LED conversion plan might save on energy costs, it will certainly worsen the intrusion of the Valley’s lights into the naturally darker corners of our state. The Republic’s Megan Finnerty explored this issue in her Sept. 7, 2014 feature story “Disappearing Darkness,” noting that scattered light from the Phoenix metro area is visible at the Grand Canyon, more than 200 miles away.

That fact might not mean much to some, but the professional astronomy industry is a huge economic engine in our state. A 2007 University of Arizona study found that astronomy and space science added $250 million per year and 3,300 jobs to the Arizona economy.

Spending associated with professional astronomy is equivalent in economic impact to “a Super Bowl a year” in Arizona. While we applaud Phoenix for installing streetlights that direct light only down, the blue light emitted by new white LED lights will actually worsen light pollution around Arizona and interfere with astronomical observations.

Setting aside the economic threat to Arizona posed by big city lights, there are many compelling reasons to take the issue seriously. Scientific studies demonstrate that exposure to artificial light at night has serious consequences for all living things.

Badly designed outdoor lighting creates glare that can temporarily blind motorists, compromising public safety and making our roads more dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists. This problem is even worse for older drivers.

Poor outdoor lighting has also been shown to diminish the security of people and property, making cities less safe. Finally, light pollution wastes energy, contributing to climate change and making our country more dependent on foreign sources of fuel.

The color characteristics of the proposed Phoenix street lighting system are consistent with previous International Dark-Sky Association guidance we now know to be inadequate. Scientific understanding of the environmental impacts of blue light at night is advancing rapidly, and last fall we updated our lighting recommendations to further reduce the amount of blue light emitted into the night.

The revision is an opportunity rather than a shortcoming, and argues in favor of proceeding cautiously toward a final decision on city street lighting. New lighting products minimize the emission of blue light while providing good color rendition, a quality identified by the Phoenix Police Department as key to achieving its public safety goals. The Department’s concerns can be properly addressed if the city invests time into finding the right solution.

International Dark-Sky Association recognizes that solving the problems associated with light pollution does not require the elimination of all outdoor light at night. Rather, we encourage applying common sense for quality outdoor lighting that puts the proper color and amount of light only where and when it is needed. This simple approach keeps light clear of our bedroom windows, away from the eyes of motorists, and out of our night skies.

Phoenix has a chance to set a good example that will influence peer municipalities throughout the U.S. and across the globe. There is only one chance to get this right. We hope the city of Phoenix will take advantage of the best available lighting technology to save energy, reduce light pollution and enhance the quality of nighttime life in the Valley of the Sun.

 J. Scott Feierabend is executive director of the Tucson-based International Dark-Sky Association, which works to reduce light pollution across the globe.