San Francisco Transitioning Street Lamps to LED

in by

Technology has come a long way since electrical municipal street lamps were first installed mid-century last.  Today’s street lighting provides lower-cost, more environmentally friendly illumination through the use of innovative bulbs and efficient installation tactics.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) maintains roughly 22,000 of the 43,000 streetlights in the City and County of San Francisco, with a few thousand lights operated by the Public Works and Recreation and Parks departments. Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) manages the rest.

Most of the City-owned street lighting is steadily being retrofitted with LEDs. Under the LED Conversion Project, launched in 2014, 18,500 City-operated “high-pressure sodium street light fixtures…” are being replaced “…with money-saving, ultra-efficient light emitting diode (LED) fixtures,” according to SFPUC. Upwards of 4,000 burned-out lights are changed annually, according to Charles Sheehan, SFPUC communications manager.

SFPUC has labeled the new lamps “smart LEDs” because they beam a neutral white light, likened to the natural, bright illumination that comes from the moon.  The smart LEDs are equipped with wireless capabilities, which enable SFPUC to “control the light performance, light intensity levels and receive real time information” remotely.

The program is being funded with revenues from the sale of Hetch Hetchy power.  According to SFPUC, an individual lamp can be converted in thirty minutes. Maintenance requirements for LED lights are quite low. They need to be changed every 15 to 20 years; the previous lamps have to be replaced every three to five years.

However, because SFPUC doesn’t own all of San Francisco’s lighting, and doesn’t plan to change every lamp to LED, there’s a looming disorder on the horizon:  the optical aesthetics and organization of the City’s lighting will soon reflect a stark difference between existing street lights and modern LEDs.  According to Matt Nauman, of PG&E corporate, although the investor-owned utility “…continues to work closely with the City and County of San Francisco and the SFPUC on streetlight projects and issues…we are in the initial stages of our discussion with the CCSF…” in regard to LED conversions.

The Inner Sunset, Presidio Heights and Downtown were the first neighborhoods to transition to LED lighting, completed in 2014.  SFPUC considered the bulbs a trial run, providing an opportunity to evaluate different control systems and obtain feedback from the public.  The results weren’t statistically significant; only 71 participants completed an online survey and just 21 people attended a live demonstration.  However, 60 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement, “I would like this style of lighting on my City streets.”

Today, LED conversions are taking place throughout the City, including as an element in Dolores Park’s renovation. As part of the conversion of the Beach Chalet soccer fields, in Golden Gate Park, from grassy fields to artificial turf, LED lighting fixtures were installed.   

SFPUC’s LED Conversion Project reflects a slow response to State Senate Bill 5X, adopted in 2001, which “mandated that the California Energy Commission…create energy efficient standards to regulate exterior lighting permitted spaces.” As a result of SB 5X, Title 24 received numerous updates, which ultimately produced the 2010 California Green Building Standards Code (CALGreen). CALGreen sets power allotments for outdoor lighting “in an effort to promote sustainable practices.”  CALGreen includes exceptions in cases “where more than 50 percent of the light from a fixture is used to light areas such as public streets.” As a result, fixtures that provide public area lighting don’t always abide by sustainable practice regulations.

Not everyone is happy with the new lights.  “People are right to complain,” said Paul Martinez, a lighting designer, of the Beach Chalet installation, because there’s more “light trespassing” as a result of the “directed light, with more glare.”  Environmental advocates point out that LED lights will only result in a smaller carbon footprint and lower expenditures if they replace existing lights, rather than add new ones. According to New York City resident, Jolanta Benal, in her neighborhood “each day that goes by, there is more of them.”

The Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) believes that as lighting costs decline demand will increase; and that LEDs’ blue-white light has to be meticulously controlled so as not to disturb the wellbeing of plants, animals and humans. According to the Associated Press, birds can be attracted to LEDs’ bright lights and fly around in circles until they “become exhausted and eventually drop.”

In 2015, The New York Times reported that “to some residents the new [LED] lights make it feel as though a construction or film crew is working outside all night” in New York, and described LED lighting as being “environmentally sensitive, but they are also optically harsh.” The Earth Island Journal found no evidence that public safety levels are heightened due to brighter lights. According to a 2002 London Crime Prevention study, Effects of Improved Street Lighting on Crime: A Systematic Review, “brighter streets make people feel safer, [yet] they have no impact on actual crime levels.”

The new bulbs may lack the warmth that the former yellow sodium lamps provided. LEDs’ illumination ranges from a blue to white hue, and creates a different and sometimes disruptively bright environment, which can interfere with the sleeping and eating patterns of wildlife. The New York Times found that “bright white light suppresses melatonin production.”

Jim Herd, a writer for the blog SF Citizen, is dissatisfied with the way lighting fixtures have been controlled in Presidio Heights, asserting that the lights remained “on all the time, literally 24/7, 365 days a year.”  Herd believes that installation of LEDs is being driven by administrative savings. “Alaskan municipalities liked LEDs because they thought there would be less of a need to replace blown bulbs in bad weather,” he said. “This is an engineering decision, one that’s based on a whole bunch of cost factorst.”