Opinion: A bright idea?

The City of Surrey's plan to switch to LED lighting raises some qustions

Before and after converting to LED lighting.

Before and after converting to LED lighting.

Welcome back to Tip of the Hat, Dig of the Spurs, our semi-occasional forum for saluting the things we do like – or giving the raspberry to those we don’t.

We’re not quite sure which category the following news item belongs in.

Last week, the City of Surrey announced it will spend $11 million over the next five years upgrading street lights to LED, joining the legion of municipalities the world over that are making the switch.

While the move to 28,000 LEDs would save the city approximately $1 million a year once the conversion is complete, those annual savings could come at a price that’s difficult to calculate.

The LED lights consume less power than sodium lights – which currently blanket the city in an orange haze at night time – and are less costly to maintain.

They’re also brighter. The city’s press release – issued Feb. 2, Groundhog Day, a daylight-inspired event to be sure – claims the LED lights make it easier for motorists to see pedestrians and signs, and reduces eyestrain and fatigue for drivers.

That’s welcome news in a city that has seen a string of serious and fatal vehicle-pedestrian collisions in the past month. Increased visibility will help, along with reducing speed, distractions and increasing driver and pedestrian awareness at intersections.

Meantime, a cursory Web search suggests where the LED lights go, a litany of complaints follows. It seems LED street lights aren’t exactly winning over fans when it comes to a good night’s sleep or feeling safe and secure from crime.

Critics point out blue-rich LED light at night can zap the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythms of sleeping and waking up, a side-effect that at the very least will send insomniacs in search of blackout blinds, but at worst may contribute to the likelihood of developing heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

Some complaints say LED lamps can leave patches of sidewalks and streets unlit, making their neighbourhoods and cityscapes seem less safe.

According to HowStuffWorks.com, they can only provide directional light, so LEDs can’t produce a soft glow that emanates in all directions, resulting in sharp shadows.

Others say the white-blue light changes the perception of their streets at night, making them feel cold and unwelcoming. Alternatives such as yellow-white LED lights create a warmer ambience, but they’re aren’t quite as energy efficient.

Light pollution also obscures the night sky, as many backyard astronomers know.

Since LEDs are brighter, will they help deter crime – or create more opportunity for criminals to carry out their misdeeds?

And, let’s face it – it will take a decade at least to cover the installation costs through energy savings, according to the city’s calculations.

Is the city’s plan – endorsed by council Feb. 1 – an idea that seems bright on paper, but might be too bright in reality?

I suppose we’ll see.

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