Story by Ithaca Voice Intern Anna Lamb

Tompkins County is considering converting to LED street lights, which would save the county energy and money.

LED streetlights, which many cities are switching to, could reduce Tompkins County’s energy use by about 65 percent. However, talks of switching have also prompted conversations about light temperature and the impact certain types of LED lights can have on people and the environment.

As part of the Shared Services Plan, a local panel has proposed a purchasing pool to facilitate the conversion to LED street lights. If it’s approved by county legislators and state officials, installation could begin as early as this fall. The panel estimates the switch could save the county $170,000 annually.

The Tompkins County Environmental Management Council took a position last week in support of the initiative, while also advising the panel on its course of action.

There are two ways for the county to switch the lights, according to Bill Evans of the EMC. One is to rent the lights from New York State Electric and Gas. The second is to buy them outright.

“A municipality in their contract with NYSEG can go ahead and say they want to convert to LEDs,” Evans said. “It appears to be a little bit of a quicker path to LED conversion — and roughly the rental cost per streetlight is maybe a 10 to 15 percent savings off the current costs.”

However, buying the lights may be more beneficial for the county in the long run, Evans said. While it takes longer — nine to 12 months according to Evans — costs from rental fees other NYSEG charges that are eliminated greatly increase savings up to 75 percent.

The other benefit of the county buying the lights is having control over what bulbs are used.

“That gives them the ability to put in logically more safe lights — lights that have less blue light output,” Evans said.

Bright white LED bulbs give off a bluish tint, which the American Medical Association has found can negatively impact human health.

It is estimated that white LED lamps have five times greater impact on circadian sleep rhythms than conventional street lamps. Recent large surveys found that brighter residential nighttime lighting is associated with reduced sleep times, dissatisfaction with sleep quality, excessive sleepiness, impaired daytime functioning and obesity.”

Light is measured in color temperature. The AMA recommends a color temperature of no greater than 3000 Kelvin for LED street lights. However, the most common LED street lights are 4000K. A higher color temperature means a more blue-rich light. Though the energy efficiency of 3000K lighting is about 3 percent less than 4000K, the AMA says, the light is more pleasing to the human eye and has less impact on wildlife.

“Excessive outdoor lighting disrupts many species that need a dark environment. For instance, poorly designed LED lighting disorients some bird, insect, turtle and fish species, and U.S. national parks have adopted optimal lighting designs and practices that minimize the effects of light pollution on the environment.”

While there are possible negative impacts from poorly designed LED lights, both the AMA and the Environmental Management Council recognize that the decreased energy use is good for environmental health.

“The AMA report details findings from an increasing body of scientific evidence that implicates exposure to blue-rich white light at night to increased risks for cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The EMC urges those planning to upgrade their lighting systems to review our policy statement prior to their implementation of such a program,” Brian Eden, chair of the EMC said in a news release.

The Environmental Management council has recently released guidelines to help reduce exposure to blue light inside and outside.

The Shared Services Plan, which includes the LED initiative, is set to reach legislators by Aug. 1.

Featured image: “Street light” by Haru_q is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.