Big Island Street Lights vs. Mauna Kea Astronomers… Round 2?

I see that street lights and the problems they pose here on the island are finally getting some attention!  The Tribune Herald reports in it’s article today County weighs LED streetlights:

The latest bright idea from Hawaii County’s senior traffic engineer aims to make nighttime driving safer and slash electricity use without blinding astronomers.

More then two years ago I asked what could be done to help improve lighting on the Big Island roads.

I sent Big Island astronomer Andrew Cooper the  following letter on September 8, 2008:

Dear Andrew,

With today’s technology and the High Powered telescopes that you folks have atop Mauna Kea… is it really necessary that the street lights be so dim over the entire island that it makes for driving on the roads dangerous?

Many lives have been lost because of the road conditions on these islands and I’m convinced that lighting at nights is part of the problem.

Any pertinent information would help as I research ways to make these roads safer.

Cooper quickly responded stating:

The streetlights do have an impact on the telescopes.  There is a reason my website is called “A Darker View”, the impacts of light on astronomical observation is significant.  Astronomers come to Hawai’i to  escape the massive lighting found around major metro areas, there are few places in the mainland US unaffected by artificial light.  The enormous amount of electric outdoor lighting has an impact on our lives, our pocket books, on our health and on wildlife.  Many of these impacts are quite negative.  We are in love with electric light and we use it extravagantly.  I am not saying turn all the lights off, we need to consider safety, but better design and better lights can reduce the need for light and increase safety.  Use it where we need it and not everywhere.

Astronomers prefer that the streetlights that are installed be low pressure sodium (LPS), these are the yellow lights installed for all civic lighting in Hawai’i.  These have two big advantages, they emit on a single wavelength allowing astronomers to filter that wavelength out of the data.  They are also far more power efficient to run, emitting more light per watt than competing halide or mercury lights.  This saves
the County of Hawai’i and the taxpayers, who must pay the power bill for all of these lights, an enormous amount of money.

A couple other advantages to LPS, the bulbs last longer and keep a good light output until failure (competing technologies dim with age) and the yellow light output (589nm) is nearer the peak photopic sensitivity of the human eye, meaning we see better with less light and energy.  The situation with respect to lighting type and effectiveness in safety is complex and depends on a lot of factors.

It may be more a case of badly designed and poorly chosen lights.  Many of the lights I do see on the island are older, inefficient designs.  A modern light is much better at putting its light where needed, on the ground and on the road and not all across the neighborhood around it. The differences are primarily in the reflector and lens design, the newer lights were designed on computer optical CAD software that takes
the guesswork out of the equation.  These lights give better
illumination on the road for the same amount of power and light.

Better lights for reducing glare and reducing light pollution are full cutoff types.  I see a lot of the non-cutoff types where glare is a problem, look for a big glass dome hanging below the light fixture, full cutoff does not have this.  Without the full cutoff you see the light, which is bright, but everything else, including the road below is dim in comparison, this is a glare problem.  Full cutoff also has the advantage of not shining in the windows of surrounding homes.

I have felt that many streets on the island, particularly in residential neighborhoods are badly over-lit.  There is quite a bit of research that shows that too much light at night messes with our hormonal cycles needed for good sleep, particularly with melatonin, with a range of health impacts.  Getting county lights out of the neighborhoods and onto the streets and critical intersections would help without increasing the power bills.  But considering the many people who do not understand the
issues, and are in love with light for all the wrong reasons, this is unlikely.

Sorry about the long message, a bit of a pet peeve subject.  But much of the astronomy community, amateur and professional is a little sensitive on this subject.

Andrew Cooper

A couple of days later I posted this:

I drove home tonight along H-130 during the evening time for the first time in a while.  I’ve been thinking about H-130 for awhile and what we can do to make it safer.

H-130 Needs more lighting.

I emailed Andrew Cooper the other day and he gave me reasonings for the street lights on this island  here and here.

While I take his scientific knowledge as a great learning tool… as the layman that I am… I just can’t take this as a reason to why we should continue risking lives here on the island.

I understand the bulbs could be different… I understand it’s a touchy subject to the scientific community…

But when the Scientific Community starts losing family members on Big Island roads due to poor lighting… maybe they will listen?

I’m not saying we need bright lights all over the place… but on a main Highway such as H-130 something needs to be done to improve the lighting… immediately.

One Response

  1. The reply about proper lighting design is right on. Over on Disappeared News I started this week with an article on stadium lighting, which is killing birds because the crude designs used in Hawaii basically illuminate the sky instead of the playing field.

    We are behind other areas not only in the technology but in the regulation of lighting. It interferes with residents trying to sleep or enjoy the use of their back yards if they live near a playing field or park.

    Street lighting that directs the light to the road is commonly available. The best deal is to reflect it downwards. Realistically, the zillions of old fixtures now installed won’t be replaced. It’s even unlikely that shields (a second-best solution) could be installed. Hence the need for regulation. At least new fixtures could be properly designed.

    By the way, lighting up the sky is a waste of taxpayer money.

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