City leaders cite community concerns in voting against installing additional blue-white LED streetlights

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.

Going against recommendations from city staff and Westar Energy, the Lawrence City Commission voted to pursue warmer-colored LEDs for both city-owned streetlights and those operated by Westar.

Prior to the decision, made at their Tuesday meeting, commissioners heard public comment from various residents, including physicists, biologists, neurologists and neighborhood representatives who asked the city to begin installing warmer-colored LED bulbs in its streetlights. Residents expressed concerns that the blue-white LEDs currently being installed negatively affect human health, driver visibility and nocturnal animals.

Commissioners voted unanimously in support of using warmer-colored LEDs instead of the 4,000 kelvin LEDs currently being installed.

“I think that we are definitely hearing customer support for this,” Commissioner Jennifer Ananda said. “And I’ve not heard a single person who is not an employee of either Westar or the city who is in support of maintaining the 4,000 (kelvin LEDs).”

The commission directed city staff to draft an ordinance that would affect the installations of LED streetlight bulbs going forward and begin a conversation with the city’s legal department and Westar Energy about the cost associated with the change. The city pays Westar to operate the majority of the roughly 5,000 streetlights in Lawrence, and Westar representatives told the commission they selected the 4,000 kelvin LEDs for safety reasons and have the discretion to charge the city more for bulbs that they deem nonstandard.

Setting a standard

The conversation at City Hall about the color temperature of LEDs was initiated by a group of residents, the Lawrence Alliance for Responsible Lighting. The alliance asked that, going forward, the city-owned streetlights and those provided via the city’s contract with Westar use bulbs with a color temperature under 3,000 kelvins.

The warmer-colored LED bulbs cost the same as the blue-white bulbs currently being used, but Westar representatives told commissioners that their agreement with the Kansas Corporation Commission gives them discretion to determine what is considered standard. In a memo to the City Commission, city staff stated that the city currently pays Westar $850,000 per year to operate the streetlights and Westar charges a “premium rate” for nonstandard streetlight fixtures.

Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen pushed back on that notion, pulling up the KCC agreement and reading directly from it. She said standard streetlamps are defined by wattage and lumens only and that color temperature is not mentioned in the agreement’s rate schedule.

“There’s nothing in here about what the kelvin has to be in order to be a standard fixture,” Larsen said.

Bob Ortiz, Westar manager of distribution standards and support, said Westar servers about 200 communities, all with 4,000 kelvin LED streetlights. He told Larsen that although the KCC agreement doesn’t mention color temperature, another page of the agreement states that Westar decides what is considered standard. When pressed further by Larsen, Ortiz said what Westar stocks in its inventory is what Westar considers standard, and that decision is based on safety.

Health and traffic safety concerns

Westar engineer Justin Rush told the commission that the primary purpose of streetlights is to ensure public safety. Rush cited a study by the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance that indicated 4,000 kelvin LEDs provide the highest detection distance for drivers and pedestrians.

“That means people have significantly more time to see and respond to a hazard,” Rush said. “Think about how quickly accidents happen and how valuable that additional reaction time might be.”

However, the Lawrence Alliance for Responsible Lighting 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. The AMA recommendation said nighttime exposure to blue-white light has been shown to disrupt human sleep by suppressing the release of certain hormones, to create glare for drivers and to disorient some animal species. Advocates for reducing light pollution, such as the International Dark-Sky Association, also recommend color temperatures below 3,000 kelvins.

Those in the lighting industry have raised additional questions. The Department of Energy issued a response to the AMA recommendation stating that effects of exposure to blue light at night also apply to light from television, phone and computer screens and would depend on the amount of light and duration of exposure.

Westar also takes issue with the AMA recommendation. Rush told the commission the problem with the AMA recommendation is that it doesn’t quantify the effects of blue light.

“It just says blue light’s bad,” Rush said. “… They didn’t give any kind of statistical correlation of color temperature or light to any kind of medical condition.”

Larsen, though, had concerns. For one, she said she thinks Westar’s consideration of safety should include human health. She also asked Rush whether the study Westar cited regarding detection distance was qualitative or quantitative, and, specifically, whether it quantified the number of accidents that occur over time. Rush responded that it did not.

Going forward

In the commission’s subsequent discussion, Larsen said she is more conservative from a health standpoint, especially if it doesn’t cost the city more money. She said in a meeting about LEDs she previously attended, Westar representatives said it didn’t cost them any more for 3,000 kelvin LEDs than it does for 4,000 kelvin.

“I would like to see us change to a 3,000 (kelvin LED), but I still would like for us to challenge, if possible, their statement that it’s going to cost us more on the electricity,” Larsen said.

Mayor Stuart Boley said he shared Larsen’s concern about how the KCC agreement defines what standard lighting is and that he thinks it’s important for the commission to have a better understanding of that going forward. Boley also said if the city has a “significant disagreement” with Westar, he’d like to know more about whether it is an option for the city to purchase the lights from Westar and have the city operate them.

Westar owns about three-quarters of the streetlights in Lawrence. Specifically, the city owns about 1,200 streetlights and pays Westar to operate about 3,900, according to figures from city and Westar representatives. Last year, the city began replacing its streetlights with 4,000 kelvin LED bulbs. Westar began replacing streetlight bulbs with 4,000 kelvin LEDs in February 2015, and about 2,500 streetlights, or about two-thirds, have been replaced with 4,000 LEDs thus far, according to Chad Luce, Westar vice president of customer relations.

As part of its vote, the commission emphasized that any action would only apply to streetlight bulbs not yet installed by the city or Westar. The commission also stated that the issue is contingent on further conversations with legal staff and Westar about the cost of the potential change. A draft of the ordinance and more information regarding the cost will come back to the commission at an upcoming meeting.

In other business, the commission deferred a decision regarding potential changes to the city’s Lifeline program, which provides a 65 percent utility discount to low-income residents age 60 and older. Commissioners expressed interest in changing the structure or requirements of the program but deferred that conversation until they discuss next year’s budget.