More energy-efficient streetlights have changed the nighttime ambience of neighborhoods across the state. Some now wonder: Is the future a little too bright?
Local governments and utility companies have converted thousands of streetlights to energy-saving LED fixtures, which typically cast a brighter, whiter light than the warmer glow of their high-pressure sodium predecessors. Those who notice the change either welcome it as an extra dose of security or squint at a harsh intruder in the dark.
“It’s not very welcoming to these neighborhoods,” said Scott Barkman, standing beneath an uncovered LED light recently affixed to a wooden pole outside his Minneapolis home. “It kind of makes them this police state.”
He is one of many south Minneapolis residents scrutinizing lights Xcel Energy has begun installing throughout the city. Some Duluth residents are so passionate about the issue that they commissioned a highly produced documentary, citylightsstarrynights.com, about the harm caused by glaring streetlights.
Whether a light is irksome often depends on the color, brightness, style of fixture and its proximity to a home. Others worry about light pollution chasing away the starry night and addling birds and other creatures.
“We’ve had a day-night cycle for billions of years,” said Scott Vesterstein, a co-owner of Fitger’s in downtown Duluth and executive producer of the film. “And just in the last few years with this new LED technology we’ve been radically changing it.”
Duluth ultimately installed warmer-hued lights during a reconstruction of Superior Street, but Vesterstein said about 1,900 people have also signed a petition opposing the harsh white lights elsewhere in the city.
The LEDs are now starting to illuminate some of the most heavily populated neighborhoods of the Twin Cities as Xcel reaches the final leg of its project to convert 90,000 lights in 350 communities across the state. Minneapolis and St. Paul crews, which are also converting city-owned lights, have so far focused on downtown areas and major thoroughfares.
Wide range of opinions
“It’s like having a super security light,” said Fred Brownson, who appreciates the new light illuminating his south Minneapolis alley. “There was a light there before, and it wasn’t anywhere as bright.”
Brownson recently responded to a post about streetlights on the social networking site Nextdoor that illustrates the wide range of opinions. One woman said the new light is akin to “a spotlight on a Broadway show,” and another said it shines right into her home. Others were optimistic that the brighter lights would deter car break-ins or help nighttime bicyclists see the street.
Chris Robinson was surprised to discover light streaming into his south Minneapolis living room one recent evening. He’s been trying to get Xcel to do something about it.
“At first I thought, ‘Is that the moon? Or did the [old] light break?’ ” Robinson said. He said it’s the same kind of light you’d find in a strip mall.
“Where does the community and the light pollution and the sensitivity to neighborhoods come into play? That’s my challenge and big question,” Robinson said.
Xcel began using lights with a warmer hue in 2017, after medical professionals warned that harsher bluish light could keep people awake. Utility spokesman Matt Lindstrom said the conversions have had environmental and economic benefits for cities across the state, and crews will redirect lights that bother people.
“We’ll always send out a crew to any lights that are creating issues for neighbors and make adjustments,” Lindstrom wrote in an e-mail.
Lighting consultant Steve Orfield of Orfield Laboratories, who lives in south Minneapolis, said streetlights should be shielded so people do not see the light source unless they are directly beneath it. He recently examined some of the lights Xcel is installing in the city and didn’t like what he saw.
“The worst LEDs are the ones that aren’t shielded in any way, that just shoot straight down and out in every direction,” Orfield said. “And that’s what this is.”
Waiting for new lanterns
In St. Paul, the city owns approximately 38,000 streetlights. The city got an earful from residents in the Lexington-Hamline area three years ago when it began converting older lantern-style lamps — originally designed for gas lighting — spurring an exhaustive study of which bulbs people would prefer.
The study showed that the neighborhood overwhelmingly preferred a prototype bulb that is not available on the open market. The city is still drafting a request to find a manufacturer who will make the bulb for them.
“I feel like we’ve been on the cusp for two years since that process,” said Amy Gundermann, executive director of the Lexington-Hamline Community Council, who’s holding the city to its promise. “It was a really positive thing. Obviously it demonstrated the city had responded to what we were hearing from neighbors.”
St. Paul Chief Resilience Officer Russ Stark said he will likely propose accelerating the change-outs in neighborhoods next year.
“There’s quite a variety of opinion about the changes out there,” Stark said. “And I think we really have tried to balance the needs and interests of less emissions from electricity, lower electricity costs, the desire to have well-lit streets, and the desire to not have that lighting impact immediate neighbors.”
The city of Minneapolis has been largely installing LEDs in taller lamps and is nearly finished converting downtown, said city Traffic Operations Engineer Steve Mosing. It is still using lights with a colder hue but hasn’t received much feedback.
It also owns about 11,000 low-level lights in more residential areas, which are likely to be more noticeable to residents. Apart from some incidental change-outs — such as repairs after a car crash — the city is still waiting for the price of those LED bulbs to drop. Mosing said that could begin in the next three to five years.
Marc Clements would rather hit the dimmer switch on the conversions. He noticed the brighter light arrive at his cul-de-sac in Brooklyn Park.
“We’re on the river. There’s wildlife. It’s almost like being in the country,” Clements said. “And quite frankly, I could use a little less light out here, rather than more. I’m not scared of the dark.”