The city of Berkeley’s project to convert thousands of old streetlights to LEDs is well underway, and the changes have not gone unnoticed.
Last fall, the Berkeley City Council voted to allow the city manager to seek a $3.5 million loan from the state to swap out its old high-pressure sodium and metal halide lamps with light-emitting diode fixtures. Better light quality, improved energy efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions were among the project’s main goals.
The city began its investigation into the possibility of LED streetlights in 2012 with a council referral to the Public Works and Energy commissions. In 2012 and 2013, more than 100 streetlights were replaced with LED lights at the Berkeley Marina and along Telegraph Avenue. This year, the city plans to finish the job, and is slated to replace all 8,000 of its old streetlights with LEDs.
So far, roughly 25 percent of the lights have been replaced, according to city spokesman Matthai Chakko. The new bulbs use 65 percent to 85 percent less energy than the old high-pressure sodium lights and should last 15 to 17 years, Chakko said. The old lights required replacement every few years.
The project began in June, and Chakko said the city has received about 40 comments on the new lights so far. Most have been positive.
“Many like the lights, particularly since it gives truer light that covers more area,” Chakko said. “It’s better for pedestrian safety at night.”
Ten comments came to the city from people who were concerned with the brightness, Chakko said. Some community members expressed a preference to walk in dimmer light. But whereas most cities that put up LED lights get about four complaints per light, he said, Berkeley has received closer to two.
Residents have also taken to social media to discuss the replacements. While many have expressed enthusiasm about the energy savings, others have said they aren’t thrilled about the intensity of the LEDs.
“I hate these new lights. So bright they hurt,” wrote Gina on Twitter in July.
“Chiming in on the dislike side. Way too bright,” added a user named symbiotic.
Victoria Wesson, who lives in North Berkeley near Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Cedar Street, said only one light near her house has been changed to an LED, but that it already has made a noticeable impact. She said she will need to hang blackout curtains to reduce the glare.
“The hue of the light is blue/white and [the] intensity of the light is hugely different,” she said. “The one light that’s been changed is at the front of our house. This light is bright enough to light our living room and we look at it head-on from our bedroom window.”
One Berkeleyside commenter expressed similar sentiments about the brightness earlier this week.
“NO care is taken to shield emission onto and into houses, living spaces and sleeping rooms with these ultra high output fixtures,” said architect Robert Remikert. “I’m all for efficiency, but accompanied by sensitive design, or careful fixture selection.”
Berkeley resident Phillip Price said he is also supportive of the project, but feels many Berkeley neighborhoods were already light enough. He also said he fears that excessive artificial light could disrupt animal sleep and feeding cycles.
“Plus, I would like to be able to see a few stars,” he said.
Others were more enthusiastic about the prospect of having brighter streets.
“Our neighborhood was upgraded this week. The white light is much more pleasant then the ugly old, orange sodium streetlights,” wrote Stefan Lasiewski on Twitter.
Replied Teresa Gonzalez: “We got ours this week, what a difference!!”
Meryl Siegal, who lives in West Berkeley, said her streets get so dark at night that walking becomes impractical and can make her feel unsafe. Siegal said she is excited about the new lights and hopes they come to her neighborhood.
“One of the reasons I chose where I live is because of the walkability, I love walking. But if I go to San Francisco and come home at, say, 9 p.m., it was so dark walking down my street that I didn’t know what to do,” Siegal said. “People should be able to walk home from the BART station if they live within a quarter of the mile.”
Her neighbors have high fences, so no light from their yards spills onto the sidewalk, and streetlights only light the road for cars. In the winter, she said people would wait at her local bus stop with flashlights so buses would see them.
She did say, however, she would have liked for the city to have asked for more input about the project from residents.
In response to concerns, Chakko said the city will address complaints individually.
The new technology will save the city of Berkeley about $400,000 annually, Chakko said. The city said previously that it cost more than $600,000 to power the city’s streetlights each year. Regarding funding for the project, the city expects to save more money than it will spend on loan repayment due to better energy efficiency along with PG&E incentives.
According to a staff report from October, the old lights generated more than 1,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, which accounted for 13 percent of the city’s emissions. The LED conversion could reduce overall municipal emissions by 6.5 percent, according to the staff report.
KQED News Associate Berkeleyside is an independently owned news website based in Berkeley, Calif. Click here if you would you like to receive the latest Berkeley news in your inbox once a day for free with Berkeleyside’s Daily Briefing email.