Lawrence City Commission to decide whether to shift to warmer-colored LEDs; cost still unclear

An LED streetlight with a color temperature of 4,000 kelvins and no shields installed is pictured at dusk on Nov. 30, 2017, in the 1600 block of Lindenwood Lane.

The debate about whether the city should follow health recommendations regarding the color of LED bulbs it uses for its streetlights will come to a head Tuesday.

At its meeting, the Lawrence City Commission will consider a city staff recommendation to continue using a type of LEDs that emit a blue-rich white light. Some studies have shown that nighttime exposure to blue light is unhealthy, but city staff states that the issue is complex and unresolved, and it is recommending the city follow lighting industry standards said to be safest for traffic. The cost of shifting to warmer-colored LEDs will also be a key discussion topic.

The Lawrence Alliance for Responsible Lighting is asking the city to reconsider its choice of LED. Specifically, the alliance is asking that, going forward, the city-owned streetlights and those provided via the city’s contract with Westar Energy use bulbs with a color temperature less than 3,000 kelvins.

Adrian Melott, emeritus professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas, is a member of the alliance. He noted the lower color temperature bulbs are now about the same price as the type used throughout Lawrence, which are 4,000 kelvins, with only a slight difference in efficiency.

“It varies from one lighting manufacturer to another but it’s typically about 3 percent,” Melott said. “So, to sacrifice the environment, human health and wildlife health for a 3 percent difference is to me not a very good idea.”

The alliance has pointed to a recommendation from the American Medical Association, based on multiple studies, that specifically warns against light with a color temperature higher than 3,000 kelvins because it can disrupt human sleep and disorient some animal species. Advocates for reducing light pollution, such as the International Dark-Sky Association, also recommend color temperatures below 3,000 kelvins.

Melott said the AMA does not make recommendations based on weak evidence, and he doesn’t understand why the city, Westar and the lighting industry oppose the request to use warmer-colored bulbs going forward.

In its memo to the commission, city staff members state they do not refute the AMA recommendation but noted that the pubic health and scientific issues are complex, and that research and debate about human circadian systems and photosensitivity are ongoing.

“(The alliance’s) request would arbitrarily restrict the city’s application of internationally accepted best management practices for outdoor and roadway lighting,” the memo states.

The majority of the city’s streetlights are owned by Westar, and the memo states that the city cannot force Westar to change its standards and rates. The city spent $850,000 on street lighting service in 2017, and staff estimates “the potential for a significant cost impact” if the city were to follow the alliance’s request, according to the memo. The memo does not provide an actual estimate of what those costs might be.

Reid Nelson, another member of the alliance, said he thinks if the city is going to “raise the specter of cost,” there should be a better understanding of why warmer-temperature LEDs would be more expensive. He said his research has found that rates are based on wattage rather than color temperature.

The Journal-World reached out to Westar Friday afternoon regarding what it would cost if the city were to request that warmer-colored LEDs be used going forward, but was not immediately provided with a figure. In an email, Gina Penzig, a spokeswoman for Westar, did offer a “technical clarification.” Penzig said with LED streetlights, the light is embedded in the streetlight head and to change the light would require a new fixture.

Penzig also said though the unit prices of either color temperature are “virtually the same,” Westar saves money by ordering a lot of the same bulb. She said ordering a smaller quantity of 3,000-kelvin lights for one area would result in losing some of the price advantage that comes with bulk orders.

City Commissioner Matthew Herbert said Friday afternoon that he had reached out to city staff about whether the fiscal impact could be made more clear. Herbert has not decided on the matter and said he is open-minded about it. He said the economic cost of any change is a big part of the discussion.

“People are willing to make choices that improve their lives if there’s no fundamental cost to it all day,” Herbert said. “But when that financial cost becomes more than they’re willing to bear, priorities on what is important and what’s not seem to change pretty quickly.”

The City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.