Bright Lights, Big Savings: The Many Benefits of LED Streetlights

It’s been said that there is no such thing as bad press. Local elected leaders and their staff may not completely agree with this, especially if the press brings criticism that takes some of the shine off of the progress they are working hard to achieve.

As increasing numbers of cities and towns advance their local sustainability and energy efficiency plans through street lighting retrofits, some residents are confronting their local leaders over some unintended impacts of the new lights.

For local leaders, this presents an opportunity to open a dialogue about the broader benefits of their policies, and the advantages of these emerging technologies.

In a recent New York Times article, “New LED Streetlights Shine Too Brightly for Some in Brooklyn,” residents of neighborhoods that have recently had LED streetlights installed complain that the lights are too bright for them, and that the new light is harsh, cold, and disruptive. 

New York City’s broad sustainability plan calls for 250,000 LED lamps to be installed in the coming two years. As the bright, white LED light replaces the dimmer orange hue of sodium vapor lamps, it will be difficult for residents not to notice, and not to have an opinion. The complaints are centered mostly on light trespass (outdoor light intruding into homes), and the noticeable difference in the “color” of the light itself.

While the city is taking measures to redirect lights away from homes, the different hue is something that residents will simply have to become accustomed to.

These LED lamps offer considerable energy and financial savings to localities, many of which count street lighting as a major component of both their energy bill and their climate impact. In New York, LED lamps are projected to generate $6 to $8 million in savings per year.

There are numerous additional benefits to this technology. LED lights last much longer (up to 20 years), which saves on maintenance and replacement. The light spectrum is higher quality and renders colors more completely, adding a public safety benefit. The LEDs can be programmed to communicate if they malfunction, allowing managers to repair “day-burners” that don’t turn off properly. They are dimmable, they cast a narrower beam of light to the ground, and they don’t attract bugs.

Still, they bother some residents.

Some municipal leaders are looking at the bright side, viewing this as a perfect opportunity to communicate the benefits of the new streetlights. By accentuating the positives — while taking care to acknowledge residents’ concerns – community leaders can work toward gaining broad acceptance of the changes as improvements to the neighborhood

Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa issued a press release upon the completion of his city’s LED replacement program doing just that.  Calling his program to replace more than 141,000 streetlights a “win-win-win,” Mayor Villaraigosa touted the demonstrable tri-benefits of the LED lights – energy savings, taxpayer savings, and reduction of carbon emissions – while former President Clinton suggested that the improved lighting would transform the community.

There are many ways that local leaders can shape messages like these to reach and appeal more broadly to their constituencies. By launching a multi-faceted communications effort to explain the safety, cost, energy, and clean air benefits, as well as the adaptability of the new technology to local needs, leaders can go beyond the single press release and use social media, earned media, and a range of marketing approaches to prepare their residents for the changing lighting and the benefits it will bring.

The lights themselves could be the best advertising. By attaching messages on or near the lights themselves (‘this light cleans the air’, ‘this light makes our street safer’), leaders can highlight the benefits that ordinary citizens may get from these lights, in addition to energy and cost savings.

All too often, sustainability improvements are essentially invisible to community residents. Something as noticeable as LED street lamps provide a great way to shine a light on how much work local leaders are doing to improve their communities.

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