The low-wattage utopia of an LED-lit city is so far limited to a pilot project on Prince’s Boulevard at Exhibition Place, making Toronto Hydro’s planned streetlight overhaul good news.
Fact is, our 15-year-old street lamps haven’t been considered an energy-conscious choice since Nirvana released a new album. But how far will our lighting wizards be able to go toward meeting the new green agenda?
That’s the big question as TH prepares to upgrade 165,000 lamps for the first time since 1993, at the same time dealing with growing concerns about the curse of light pollution. The metal halide fixtures in place now send wasteful amounts of lights upward to pointlessly illuminate the heavens, turning the starry night sky into an iridescent brown soup and spilling excess glare into sleep-challenged households.
That’s where a City Hall committee of astronomers, lighting designers, bird-protecting Fatal Light Awareness Project activists and reps from To-ronto Hydro and business improvement orgs comes in.
Along with its mandate on light blights like billboards, offices and car lots, the committee is examining street lamp options with a view to wildlife protection, good visual aesthetics, enhanced stargazing and minimizing cancer-related night light. “I would say all the major players are here,’’ says com-mittee head and city environmental planner Kelly Snow, except for medical experts, who he hopes will participate soon.
Meanwhile, Toronto Hydro technicians, aiming at a 2009 deadline, are tinkering with energy-efficient light sources and light-shielding fixtures to find the best, in an effort called the Adaptive Lighting Asset Management Program (ALAMP). But those expecting energy mega-savings are bound to be dissappointed. Says lighting designer Gerry Cornwell, who is overseeing the testing, “We will probably see saving in the range of 20 to 35 per cent. That’s realistic. We can achieve that, but we’re not going to see 75 per cent.”
The test yard, he says, contains variations on conventional technologies like the current halides, which are bright and white and, though astronomer-unfriendly, well liked because they’re considered the safest range of light for humans.
Then there are the more efficient yellow-tinged high-pressure sodium lights like those in Richmond Hill, the form of lighting insisted on by Dunlop Observatory astronomers.
The project also tests more exotic species such as costly but long-lasting induction lighting and T5HO bulbs, a high-output fluorescent that works well in the Canadian cold and is more efficient than what we now have.
It turns out, says Cornwell, that the much-vaunted very green LEDs aren’t the obvious choice. Though the Exhibition pilot project uses LEDs, they aren’t a cure-all.
“It’s an immature technology,” Cornwell says. “Would you invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a technology that in six months to a year is going to have significantly higher performance? This makes it difficult, almost impossible, to consider really large-scale applications.”
The next phase of testing, set for June, will take a narrowed roster of light-makers to the street for field trials that will include “shielded” or “full-cutoff” fixtures, which are designed to force light downward, not skyward or into homes.
“People seem to think there’s a magic bullet, and if we change everything to full-cutoff, it’s going to solve all the light pollution,” he says. “It’ll help, but it’s not going to make it go away.”
Don’t expect to see the Milky Way from Bloor and Spadina any time soon.