The subject of light got a serious discussion at Tuesday’s city council meeting.

Last year the city declined to participate in PG&E’s LED streetlight program, which replaces PG&E owned high pressure sodium vapor streetlights with LED lights, opting to wait for lower intensity lights to become available.

PG&E’s contractor apparently never got the message and replaced about 48 of the older lamps with the high-intensity (rated 4000 kelvin) lighting, before the mistake was realized.

With the lower intensity lights (3000 kelvin) now available, the city needs to decide whether to proceed with the installation of the new technology, and, if so, whether to replace the higher intensity lights mistakenly installed.

The arguments for using LED technology are financial and environmental. LED lights use less energy, and therefore cost less. Replacing the city’s roughly 325 streetlights with newer ones would save about $4,000 annually, according to staff. Additionally, the brighter new lighting is safer, providing better vision for drivers at night, and is much more focused, reducing light pollution.

Speaking for the public works department, Tobias Barr reported the city has received no complaints about the newly installed lights, which are mostly in commercial districts. Staff, he said, recommended the use of the higher intensity lamps on the city’s main thoroughfare, and the softer lights in residential districts.

However, some councilmembers and members of the public said the health effects of brighter lights are still being debated.

Bobbi Monnette cited an American Medical Association report on the ill effects of “hotter” white-blue light, including sleep loss and even pupillary damage. The AMS recommends nothing brighter than 3000 kelvin she said. And lighting can negatively impact birds and animal lifecycles, she said.

Mark Smithers agreed.

“I’m all in favor of reducing light pollution,” he said, “but we have to be careful of the health aspects of it.”

The LED technology, he said, is “still in its infancy,” and compared the potential damage to asbestos, cigarette smoke and lead-based paint, all of which were thought to be safe at one time. He felt saving $4,000 a year wasn’t worth the risk.

Councilmember Mary Koberstein wanted to defer any decision, wondering how long the PG&E program will run. Under the current program, PG&E pays for replacing the older lamps.

Barr said he had no firm date, but thought it might only run for about a year.

Councilmember Geoff Ellsworth said if 3000 kelvin was safe, the 2400 kelvin of the current lights would be safer, and said the council should err on the side of caution.

In the end, the majority felt they could live with the AMA recommendation and voted 3-2 to replace the city streetlights with the softer 3000 kelvin variety. Councilmembers Ellsworth and Koberstein voted against the replacement.

PG&E will replace the mistakenly installed lamps at no charge.

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