Editorial: Streetlights revamp a bright idea in Northampton

  • New LED streetlights installed on Pleasant Street. Jerrey roberts

Published: 5/24/2016 7:45:42 AM

Northampton is poised to spend nearly a million dollars to reduce its energy bill for streetlights. We say full speed ahead.

By switching to LED fixtures this summer on over 2,000 streetlights, the city will save over $170,000 in yearly energy costs and lessen its carbon footprint. The upfront costs will be cut by rebates from National Grid worth about $190,000. That adds up to a five-year payoff on the investment. From then on, the savings fall to the city’s bottom line.

That’s progress, but some in Northampton feel the city’s plan would mar people’s quality of life. In a petition that was to be submitted Monday, a group of citizens claims that glare from the LED lights the city plans to install will disrupt sleep patterns and make it harder for people to appreciate the beauty of the night sky. The petition was started by James D. Lowenthal, a professor of astronomy at Smith College.  

Once novel, light-emitting diode fixtures are now commonplace in our lives because they produce more light with less power. Lowenthal told the Gazette he applauds the city’s move to reduce its energy use, but argues that it should choose different LED fixtures for the project to reduce glare. And it should shield the new lamps, he says, so light is directed only downward.

While the professor makes good points, the city is constrained in its choice of LED fixtures that can be used in the utility’s energy-efficiency program.

Also, while reducing the amount of light that streetlights cast may be aesthetically pleasing, that has an effect on public safety that must remain a prime consideration.

Chris Mason, the city’s energy and sustainability officer, said that to provide the same level of illumination with some of the kinds of LED fixtures that Lowenthal advocates, the streetlight system would have to be redesigned. That would take time and cost money.

Mason also argues that the new lights, though brighter, will cut the amount of glare produced by existing traditional fixtures, including the light that scatters up and makes it harder for people to see the night sky.

In a perfect world, Northampton could start from scratch on its streetlight system and adopt a type of LED fixture that, with special shielding, casts an adequate but not overpowering light.    

But in the real world, those types of fixtures are not included in National Grid’s rebate system. And even if they were, the safety of people driving and walking beneath the streetlight system must be protected. Lowenthal is probably right that a system that produces a lower ambient light level could be engineered in a way that does not compromise public safety.

But that would delay these smart moves and probably cost a lot of money, since it could mean repositioning utility poles.

Mason said Monday the city will work to accommodate citizen concerns as it moves forward with the project. To its credit, the city has been seeking and responding to comments on this issue for months, receiving 88 responses about sample LED fixtures it installed.

Mason also said the city is willing to have its contractor, on a case-by-case basis, install shields on specific LED fixtures that are deemed to be a nuisance, at no cost to residents. He believes that will not be necessary, since the lights are “directional” and can be aimed downward to illuminate streets and sidewalks.

In Amherst, where LED lights are already saving taxpayers money, the town’s public works department has been able to respond to concerns about glare by adjusting the fixtures and in some cases shielding them.

City Council President William H. Dwight is correct to argue that Northampton shouldn’t fall victim to “decision paralysis.”

As the old saying goes, the search for the perfect can be the enemy of what’s good. Saving money and paring back on greenhouse gas emissions through wasteful energy use are two goods the city can achieve this summer.  




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