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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New LED streetlights are green, but have some Spokane residents seeing red

The streets no longer roll up at 6 p.m., but some residents on the South Hill say Spokane is becoming the City that Never Sleeps – because it’s too bright.

“You walk out in the street and it’s like a football stadium,” said Chris Oxford, a homeowner in the Rockwood neighborhood. On Monday, Avista replaced the sodium orange streetlight outside his house with a brighter, whiter LED bulb. “It just feels like you’re in a prison exercise yard,” Oxford said.

Oxford isn’t the only person with such a bright future. Avista will “upgrade” 3,000 streetlights in Washington this year, including in eight Spokane neighborhoods and a dozen small towns in the region, including Tekoa, Clarkston, Colfax and Deer Park. It’s part of a five-year project to swap 30,000 bulbs in company-owned streetlights with energy-efficient replacements. Avista owns and maintains the vast majority of streetlights within city limits, totaling about 12,000 streetlights.

Avista officials say the project was made possible because of the falling price of LEDs. Though cost was the tipping point for the energy company, the new blue-white bulbs will make Spokane a bit greener.

LED lights are recyclable and do not contain mercury, unlike the sodium lights they’re replacing. Dan Knudson, an electric distribution design senior engineer with Avista, said the new bulbs are estimated to reduce energy usage by 40 percent to 50 percent, and should last three times longer than the ones they’re replacing, leading to a life span of up to 20 years.

Don Kopczynski, Avista’s vice president of energy delivery, said in a statement that the energy saved by the bulb replacement project could power 2,300 homes.

Oxford, in the Rockwood neighborhood, said he supports Avista’s environmental efforts, but they don’t negate his concerns.

“I have no problem with upgrading the lights and using less energy,” he said. “But if I stand by my front window, I have this bright light right in my face. It looks like someone’s shining an LED flashlight in your face. You could sit in the street and read a book. You could play hockey.”

Oxford – who characterized the change in light with the LED as “the difference between a nightlight in your bathroom and a football stadium” – said he didn’t want to just complain; he wants to help find a solution. He recommended putting shades on the lamps to block light from homes, or equipping them with a dimmer to lower the light at 10 p.m.

Glenn Madden, manager of asset maintenance with Avista, said the company aimed to please.

“We will work with customers in certain situations. We want customers to be pleased and satisfied,” Madden said.

Karen Cornwell, the lighting project coordinator with Avista, suggested that Oxford was in the minority.

“For the last five years, I’ve gotten a lot of calls asking for a brighter, cleaner light,” Cornwell said. “Really, our customers have been asking for it for a long time.”

Cornwell added that the Spokane Police Department also has requested new, brighter lamps “in every location possible.”

“The brighter LED lights do a much better job at keeping criminal activity down,” Cornwell said.

But it’s clear that Oxford is not alone in his concerns. Other cities that have switched to LEDs have struggled to balance the cost and energy savings with the sensitive eyes of their residents.

Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit and Los Angeles have all switched to the LED lights, and dealt with fallout from citizens. In Davis, California, residents were so upset by the harsh glare of the new lights that city officials replaced them with lower-wattage LEDs that had a warmer glow.

Oxford said he remembers when the orange sodium lights were installed in the 1970s in the Bay Area of California.

“The big deal then was we’ll be able to see the stars better,” he said. “You stand in that circle of light (from the LED) and you can’t see a thing. You can’t even see the sky, let alone the stars.”

According to the International Dark-Sky Association, LED lights have both promise and challenges. Aside from the energy efficiency, LEDs allow more control over the light’s spectral content, meaning that the lights can be designed to have lower emissions of blue light, which impairs the human eye’s ability to see in the dark.

The dark sky association, along with the Illuminating Engineering Society of America, helped write a model ordinance for Washington cities to develop outdoor lighting standards to reduce “glare, light trespass and skyglow.”

Oxford has contacted Avista with his concerns, and was told the energy company was in the initial stages of rolling out the program and still working out the bugs. Regardless, Oxford was considering calling Spokane City Council members and pushing them to adopt a light pollution ordinance.

“The work is done, it’s just a matter of adopting it,” he said. “I want solutions. I want it fixed and I want to help fix it.”