The next time you find yourself outside at night, take a look at the streetlights of Helena and ask yourself: “Should these lights look more like fluorescent lights?” or “Do I want to see fewer stars at night?” If you’re like me, the answer to these questions is “no.” The high-pressure sodium bulbs that illuminate most of our neighborhoods provide a comforting, warm glow that mimics firelight and provides a historic feel to our lovely city.
Unfortunately, NorthWestern Energy is planning to replace these lights with considerably whiter, bluer, harsher lights. These lights will degrade our night sky visibility and imbue our neighborhoods with the charm of a grocery store parking lot. I fear this switch will fundamentally change the character of Helena’s neighborhoods for the worse.
NorthWestern wants to switch our streetlights to LEDs. This is a good thing. Switching to LEDs is a win for both the environment and taxpayers’ wallets. But all LEDs are not created equal. The blue-white temperature bulbs NWE intends to install will dramatically change the feel of our neighborhoods and degrade night sky visibility. Fortunately, there are available LED options that would both increase efficiency and maintain or even improve the quality of Helena’s nightscape. However, NorthWestern does not seem interested in exploring these other options.
Light color, or “temperature,” is a crucial, and oft underappreciated element of spatial design. Light temperature is measured on the Kelvin scale, where lower numbers signify warmer, more red-orange light, and higher numbers represent cooler, more white-blue light. A pile of glowing coals is approximately 1500K, firelight is around to 2000K and the HPS lamps that light most of our residential streets are about 2200K. NorthWestern wants to replace our lights with much bluer 3000K lights. These lights are more like halogen bulbs than firelight.
Studies have shown that bluer, whiter lights degrade night sky visibility and harm circadian rhythms in both people and wildlife. Also, in my opinion, they look ugly and will significantly detract from the historic feel of our town.
Take a trip to the City-County Building at night. The difference between the new LED lights surrounding the building and the HPS lamps across the street is stark. Now imagine every streetlight in every neighborhood replaced with these LEDs. I find the image very troubling.
Numerous cities, including Seattle, Phoenix, and Davis, California, have made the costly mistake of installing ugly, cold-white LED streetlights and later had to replace them due to public outcry. Helena can avoid such a debacle by installing warm spectrum LEDs at the outset.
If you, like me, want to preserve the historic feel of our neighborhoods and improve dark sky visibility while still achieving greater energy efficiency, I urge you to write to NorthWestern and the Helena City Commission and ask them to install 2700K or (even better) 2200K LEDs in our neighborhoods. We don’t have to give up comfort and beauty to achieve energy efficiency.
The city commission will address this topic at its meeting 4 p.m. Wednesday.