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Bring back the dark

From LED signs to street lights, night is disappearing, taking energy dollars and the stars with it.

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BLINDED BY THE LIGHT: Wade Aday and other Walton Heights residents are complaining about an intensely bright LED sign. "It's just phenomenal," Aday says.
  • BLINDED BY THE LIGHT: Wade Aday and other Walton Heights residents are complaining about an intensely bright LED sign. "It's just phenomenal," Aday says.

Wade Aday is having trouble getting sleep, and it's his view of the Arkansas River from his Walton Heights home that's the problem. 

A new, big-screen LED (light emitting diode) sign that welcomes visitors to the River Pointe Plaza Shopping Center on Maumelle Boulevard, across the river and west of North Little Rock, burns so brightly the Adays say it lights up their bedroom. 

The sign is two and a half miles from the Adays' home. “It's just phenomenal,” Aday said.

Aday and his wife are not the only ones complaining. Last month, the Walton Heights-Candlewood Homeowners Association quarterly newsletter featured an article headlined, “What is that strange light across the river?” The authors noted that “not only is the light an eyesore, it actually impedes a person's ability to get to sleep.”

Aday turned to the North Little Rock Planning Department for help. But the sign is in an unincorporated area of the county. Even if it were in North Little Rock, however, Aday would not be able to get relief: The sign is not illegal under North Little Rock code.

 

The sign on Maumelle Boulevard is but one of many sending bright groups of photons outward and upward into the night sky, polluting the dark. Street lights, road signs, marquees, and billboards that project light up and out (where it's not needed) instead of down (where it is) have transformed our starry night skies from inky black to a soupy, pale orange.

Jim Fisher and Wade Van Arsdale are local astronomers, and both are members of the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society, or CAAS. CAAS has an observatory located between Conway and Little Rock to take advantage of the dark rural night, but the sky glow of the two cities is encroaching.

“I'd say the glow around Conway and Little Rock has doubled since I started going out there in 1990,” Van Arsdale said. Standing atop the observatory, “It can reach upwards of 20 degrees over the horizon now.”

The glow inhibits astronomers' ability to conduct research and enjoy their hobby, but they're not the only ones to suffer. “My interest in protecting the night sky is not just for us nerdy astronomers going out with our telescopes, but for families, so they can go outside at night and see the stars and the Milky Way,” Fisher said. “Right now, West Little Rock is so lit up at night that you're lucky if you can see the major stars and constellations.”

The problem with light pollution is more than aesthetic, scientific studies show. It's bad for humans and wildlife. Exposure to night-time light can cause hormonal disturbances that affect the body's natural rhythms and even fuel the growth of tumors and cancer. A 2005 study published in the scientific journal Cancer Research reported that women who work the night shift are much more likely to develop breast cancer.

Wildlife will go hungry rather than venture out under heavy moonlight, where they're vulnerable to predators. That means less food for predators as well. Light pollution also affects the migratory habits of sea turtles, bats, birds and other species.

There are economic benefits, as well as health benefits, to reducing light pollution. Using less light means using less energy.

“A lot of our light is just lost energy because it's not focused where we want it,” Fisher said. “A lot of outdoor lights are aimed over the roofs and straight up in the air.” The use of shielded fixtures that focus light downward, where it's needed, reduces the amount of light needed, “and it would save whoever's paying the bills money in the long run,” he said.

 

According to the International Dark-Sky Association, or IDA, 16 states have laws on the books in an effort to reduce light pollution.

But when Sam Ledbetter, a Little Rock lawyer and former Arkansas state representative, introduced a lighting act in 2003, he was ridiculed by his colleagues, he said.

The bill would have required all newly-installed outdoor lighting fixtures to be shielded to direct light downward. It also called for the use of more energy-efficient high-pressure sodium (HPS) bulbs. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is now requiring municipalities to change from mercury vapor lights to HPS bulbs.

“I wanted to emphasize the need for energy conservation,” Ledbetter said. “It seemed that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, legislators could not accept that shielded lighting provides the same or greater amount of security without having glare and light pollution.”

But in fact, unshielded lights can increase glare, actually helping would-be criminals — not to mention the effect of street light glare on drivers.

“Shielded lighting places more light on the ground where the bad guys are,” Ledbetter said.

The bill ultimately failed.

“I came to believe that our electric utilities did not like my proposal regarding the more energy-efficient type of lighting because using the inefficient kind gives them greater off-peak demand,” Ledbetter said.

In 2005, Ledbetter came back with a scaled-back version of the Shielded Outdoor Lighting Act that allowed local governments to opt out of installing shielded lighting if it was cost-prohibitive, which a lot of municipalities did, including Little Rock.

“For us, the initial costs were prohibitive,” Little Rock traffic engineer Bill Henry said. Entergy's rate structure, ironically, charges significantly more for more energy-efficient lighting. 

In Arkansas, a city's electric bill is not based on metered electricity usage, but on a tariff rate submitted by the utility companies and approved by the state Public Service Commission (PSC). This monthly rate varies depending on the streetlight and factors in a variety of costs including the bulb, the type of fixture (shielded or unshielded), maintenance, and energy usage.

According to Henry, the city tested out more efficient 100–watt HPS bulbs in one Little Rock neighborhood about five years ago. When the city asked Entergy to set a rate for those fixtures, it was almost double the rate for the 150-watt HPS type. 

Entergy also charges higher rates for shielded fixtures than some other utilities in the state. The current Entergy rate for a 150-watt shielded fixture is almost $1 more per month than the unshielded. Those price differences aren't doing anything to encourage the city to shift to more efficient lighting.       

Other utilities in Arkansas offer a better deal: Ozarks Electric Cooperative Corp. only adds 23 cents to the cost of shielded light; SWEPCO charges nothing more for shielded lights.

When asked if Entergy was keeping Little Rock from being more energy efficient, Henry said simply, “Yes.”

“But how do you fight Entergy?” Henry asked. “I mean, we've had people come in and show us new, more efficient lights and we've said, well, the problem is, it's not going to save us anything. It will be a whole lot less wattage and it will put light out on the street but we can't get any benefit out of it because of the tariffs.” 

James Thompson, communications specialist for Entergy, said the utility offers inventory based on requests from their customers, and they just haven't had that many requests for 100-watt HPS bulbs.

“We have to look at what's best for our customers,” Thompson says. “We don't want to put something up and find out six months later that it doesn't work very well. Anything that can help fight pollution, we're 100 percent for it.”

John Bethel, director of the PSC, said the commission doesn't require utilities to offer certain types of lighting, although they do encourage conservation and energy efficiency programs. Commission rules require utilities to come up with conservation programs, but none have been directed toward outdoor lighting so far.

“Entergy's going to do what they can do to get the most revenue,” Henry said. “They're going to do whatever they can do to get the most out of it and still be within PSC guidelines.”

“It's bureaucracy. What they're doing is playing the game the way it was set up by the PSC,” Henry said.

 

The state Department of Parks and Tourism is tackling light pollution at Magazine Mountain State Park with shielded fixtures. Director Richard Davies said the initial costs were not prohibitive and he believes the operating costs are less.

“I think what's happening is technology and energy costs are going to change attitudes about a lot of that stuff,” Davies said. “I think what scared everybody when the lighting act passed was they thought, ‘Oh my God I'm going to have to go out and spend $2 million dollars and change every light bulb.' Yet, we all change lights and fix lights and replace lights all the time. If we did it as we went along it wouldn't be a big deal.”

Davies said that the replace-as-you-go trend will catch on with other state agencies and facilities.

“There's a clean buildings committee that's looking into energy efficiency in state buildings, and other buildings, for this next [legislative] session,” Davies said. “What has happened over time, from what I've seen, are things that people saw as prohibitively expensive are now so much more efficient that it becomes a good deal.”

 

Fisher and Van Arsdale, along with other astronomy clubs in Fort Smith and Texarkana, have teamed up to start a local chapter of the IDA. “We basically went from astronomers to activists,” Fisher said.

The IDA chapter has submitted a proposal to the Perry County Quorum Court that would call for the gradual replacement of unshielded lighting with shielded fixtures as they burn out, within a 2-mile radius of the observatory.

Van Arsdale said the chapter is trying to establish a “beachhead” and would eventually talk with Faulkner and Pulaski counties as well.

“If we could get the politicians and the general public to understand what a ‘win-win' it is in terms of economics and pollution, it could be done,” Van Arsdale said. “It's already been done in many areas out West.”

 

Richardson Properties, owner of the LED sign illuminating the Aday home, has agreed to reduce the sign's power to 15 percent after 9 p.m. Wade Aday wants it reduced after 6 p.m.

Keith Richardson says that's going too far. “We just can't agree to that,” Richardson said. “We have bent over backwards trying to be accommodating to the Walton Heights residents. We're operating inside the city of North Little Rock's sign guidelines and we voluntarily agreed to reduce the brightness after the residents' concerns were made aware to us.”

North Little Rock puts a brightness limit of 300 lumens on outdoor signs. The LED light is below that limit, Richardson's company has told the North Little Rock Planning Department.

Planning Department Director Robert Voyles said the city has ordered a new illumination meter in an attempt to better measure just how much light the city's signs and billboards are putting out. Though the code establishes a limit, the city hasn't standardized the way it measures brightness. “How close do you get to the sign? At what time of night do you measure it? It's all very relative,” Voyles said. “You can hold the meter up and it says one thing. Five feet closer to the light and it says another.” An initial test with the new meter found that a lot of signs in North Little Rock are over the 300-lumen limit.

 Aday fears that with more and more development in the North Little Rock and Maumelle areas, the use of big, bright, moving LED signs will become the standard, not the exception.

“The thing is that whole strip over there is going to be full of these things because those lights are getting cheaper all the time. And they're neat, but they can be a real nuisance,” Aday said. “It's the craziest thing I've ever seen. If they don't rein that thing in some how, and have some legitimate codes and regulations that will work, then that whole Maumelle area is going to look like Las Vegas.”

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