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Duluth’s LED streetlight conversion rankles some residents

Alarmed by the proliferation of high-intensity LED streetlights and the glare they produce, Duluth businessman Scott Vesterstein has been lobbying city officials to reconsider their recent investments in the energy-saving technology.

Bright lamps powered by LED lighting illuminate the scene at Chester Creek and the bridge on 9th Street in Duluth, Minn. recently. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
Bright lamps powered by LED lighting illuminate the scene at Chester Creek and the bridge on 9th Street recently. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
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Alarmed by the proliferation of high-intensity LED streetlights and the glare they produce, Duluth businessman Scott Vesterstein has been lobbying city officials to reconsider their recent investments in the energy-saving technology.

In an effort to convice the city to change course, Vesterstein has launched an online petition, which has already garnered more than 200 signatures, at change.org

He's calling on the city to move away from its use of 4000-Kelvin LED fixtures, in favor of lower-output LEDs rated 3000K or lower.

Vesterstein explained that the color of light is measured using the Kelvin scale, and the lower the number, the warmer the light generally is.

He cites recent guidance offered by the American Medical Association and the Dark Sky Association that favors LED lights no stronger than 3000K.

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An AMA report issued in June found that exposure to brighter lights can disrupt people's circadian rhythms, the body's production of melatonin and the function of the retina, and can increase the risk of obesity and other health problems.

The Dark Sky Association warns that light pollution from unnecessarily bright lamps obscures evening views of the heavens and disrupts nocturnal wildlife.

David Malban, a Duluth attorney and amature stargazer, said LED lights have changed the experience of going for a walk in his neighborhood or driving down city streets.

"The glare is harder on your eyes as you get older," he said.

Erik Birkeland, Duluth's property and facilities manager, has reviewed much of the research on LED lighting and observed: "It's an evolving picture. I think it's very fair to say the science is not settled. The AMA has their concerns, but they're not lighting engineers. ... And those that are have been systematically looking at the research and rebutting some of the statements made in there."

But Birkeland doesn't refute many of the findings.

"Some of the statements made in there are very true," he said. "The AMA says poorly designed, not-well-thought-out LED installations are bad for dark skies. They're bad for people, they're bad for animals. And I think that is true. If you do it poorly and you put a big 5000K wall pack on your building and it just shines out and overilluminates everything, that's not good for the neighbors, that's not good for the raccoons or whatever. But if you're putting in lights that are focused on using light where you need it just for how you need it, then I think the city is meeting what the AMA is asking for, because we're really putting a lot of thought into how we're putting lights out."

Question of character

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Vesterstein warned that harsh LED lighting threatens to sully the charm of Duluth.

"We're a historic city. We're an environmentally friendly city, and we're very tourism-based. So we want to create a warm, inviting atmosphere for our businesses for our citizens for our guests and our tourists. And installing 4000K lighting is not what Duluth or the county should be doing," he said.

Birkeland noted that the city has chosen to install lower-output LED fixtures in places such as the Rose Garden and the Lester Park ski trails.

"They bring up a good point to consider, that there are different zones of our city that are more appropriate for different lighting, based on historic and aesthetic character, look and feel. A historic district might want more of a gaslight feel, more of a softer light, more of a warm, inviting light. A street where a lot of cars and traffic and pedestrians and bikers are all coming together might need that more bright, clear light. An area that has environmental sensitivity, like Hartley Park, might want a different kind of a lighting scheme," he said.

"We've actually been asking these questions, as we've looked at lighting," Birkeland said.

"But when it comes to the streetlighting, I think we kind of standardized the whole way through, based on what we're hearing from government and other lighting engineers. The technology is changing so fast and the differences are so stark between the old style of lighting and the new style of lighting that I think there are some reactions coming and some concern," he said.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons why 4000K fixtures have emerged as a national standard for streetlights, said Birkeland, who noted that the clear light they produce is much like that of the moon.

Value

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Because 4000K fixtures are widely used and can be purchased at a discount via state contract, Birkeland said they also have been more cost-competitive than lower-output LEDs.

What's more, up until lately, 4000K lights have been much more energy-efficient than their less-bright LED cousins.

"An LED is about 8500K just out of the box, with no lens on top of it, and as you move the color temperature, you're basically putting layers of frosting over the cake," Birkeland said. "So the more frosting I put over the cake, the more I change the light temperature.

Extending the metaphor, Birkeland said: "A 3000K bulb has more frosting on it, so the light needs to work harder to provide the same level of illumination in an area, and then the energy savings are not as great."

But the picture is changing.

"The technology has been emerging and that efficiency gap between 4000 and 3000K has been closing," Birkeland said.

He noted that next year, the city plans to install new controls that will enable the city to individually dim streetlights, making it possible to reduce a 4000K fixture to the brightness of about a 3000K lamp.

Birkeland said the new system will allow the city "to centrally manage and control and dial in all the different lighting systems in the city."

Vesterstein said the negative consequences of high-power LED lamps and the blue-spectrum light they typically produce weren't widely understood when the city began changing out its old streetlights.

"Quite frankly, a year and half ago, no one was really aware of this. So it's no fault of anybody's that this happened. But now that we are aware of the issues, I think that instead of continuing down this path, we should probably make adjustments," he said.

Reverse course?

Vesterstein suggested Duluth would be wise to follow the lead of other communities that opted for dimmer LED lighting such as Tucson, Ariz., or Davis, Calif. In Davis, he noted that city officials were flooded with complaints when they initially installed new 4000K lights. Davis ultimately chose to replace those lights with dimmer fixtures at an additional cost of $330,000.

The decisions made today could have long-term ramifications, said Vesterstein, who said that the new LED lights typically are expected to last for more than 20 years.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson announced plans to invest $500,000 in new energy-saving technology - primarily in the form of new LED lighting - shortly after taking office earlier this year.

"We have made it a priority to address inefficient street lighting," she said.

Birkeland said new LED fixtures have proven to be 40 to 80 percent more efficient than the high-pressure sodium, mercury vapor and halide lights they replaced. Those old lights also were typically far less powerful, registering in at 2100 to 2200K.

Jim Benning, Duluth's director of public works and utilities, said that aside from decorative lights, about 90 percent of city-owned streetlights have now been converted to LEDs. Duluth is responsible for more than 1,100 streetlights citywide.

The city also pays Minnesota Power ongoing fees to operate lights on about 3,500 utility poles staggered throughout the community. Pat Mullen, Minnesota Power's vice president of marketing and corporate communication, said the utility has not been actively converting to LED lights but has been replacing old fixtures as they fail with new LEDs.

Additionally, Duluth has changed out about 575 decorative lights with LED fixtures for a cost of about $800,000, Benning said.

As for the idea of backtracking, Larson said: "We want to be a city that's responsive to the ideas and concerns of residents, while being very intentional about how we're spending dollars. But when we, as city, start to talk about respending dollars, that is a tipping point, in terms of what makes good sense for the overall picture."

Despite that position, Larson said she and her administration are willing to explore future alternatives.

"My understanding is that we are nearing completion of where we intended to go with streetlighting and that we are taking a pause before we finish. So taking a pause is fine. The city is reviewing all the information that we have spent an enormous amount of time compiling, based on all sorts of different factors and needs and metrics, with the recognition that the lion's share of our commitment to energy-efficient lighting is complete and in line with the matrix we set out to achieve," she said.

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENT
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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