For many, “Blinded by the Light” conjures up images of a young Bruce Springsteen belting out a fiery tune. However, in this case, it’s referring to something altogether different. 

In mid-September, bucket trucks started rolling down the streets in my Durham, North Carolina neighborhood. Our High-Pressure Sodium (HPS) streetlights, which had been omnipresent lining the road, were quietly being replaced with new Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). At first glance, the sleek new streetlight style was appreciated.  

And then, the sun went down. 

The City’s Perspective

The city started this project with a small pilot program and the best of intentions. Beginning in 2014, if a streetlight failed mechanically, it would be supplanted by an LED fixture. Over 1,000 lights were replaced, and it was smooth sailing—there wasn’t a single complaint. 

According to the mayor of Durham, Steve Schewel, when the LED lighting proposal was presented to the city council, there was excitement. “We are working hard to make our city less fossil-fuel dependent,” Schewel stated in an email. “We have set ambitious goals for carbon neutrality in Durham, and we were happy to hear that these new lights could help us meet those goals.”

The city staff estimates that it will result “in a reduction of 6.25 million kWh of electricity each year, which is a savings of 4.4 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the equivalent of 10,246 barrels of oil, or 4.8 million pounds of coal, or taking 940 passenger vehicles off the road for a year.” 

The benefits were clear—energy savings, coupled with a positive environmental impact. The City of Durham decided to embark on a full-scale HPS replacement program.

The positive environmental impact is meaningful, but often goes unrecognized. Residents do not call the city offices or the local utility to extol the virtues of the corner light. Lighting communication from residents consists overwhelmingly of complaints and streetlights are often viewed internally as a problem area for cities and utilities.

How One Neighborhood Reacted to the Change 

The LEDs cast a new light on the street—not the warm yellow that people had grown accustomed to, but rather one that was brighter and had a cool white feel. A colleague refers to it sarcastically as the “Bug Zapper” effect. The neighborhood listserv exploded with activity.  

“Now an eerie blue glow shines through the blinds into my house. It almost looks like daylight at night – stadium lighting is a good description.” April

“That color temperature situation is a big deal—not just for wildlife but for humans as well.” MJ

“Absolutely hate the new lights and they are being installed all over Durham neighborhoods where once there were amber-colored lights that did the job just fine.” Roberta

“We have also had to get black-out curtains in order to sleep.” Rodrigo

As you can see, this topic struck a nerve. In one week, there were more than 50 posts focused on how to fight the installation. The sheer amount of dialogue rivaled the infamous, “Is it ok to put bagged dog poop in a neighbor’s trash can?” conversation of 2019.  

A story emerged through many emails to city department heads by various individuals within the neighborhood. Duke Energy owns and manages the streetlights and charges the city a monthly service fee for that service. Regarding the changeover to LEDs, the Public Utilities Commission allowed Duke Energy to impose a $40/light transition fee. When considering there are roughly 22,000 lights in Durham, the total bill was more than $800,000. Learning the complex intricacies of streetlight ownership structure and management was part of the listserv dialogue.

Unfortunately, by the time that the neighborhood listserv exploded with activity, well over 90% of the new lights had already been installed. Going back to the old lights was not an option. Once the utility and city decided to “roll trucks,” the options became very limited. The one-time installation expenses made large scale changes unrealistic. It would be fiscally irresponsible.  

The Missed Opportunity

The city addressed the situation with graciousness. The project leader repeatedly answered questions and worked to find an amicable solution to anyone that saw the new lights bothersome. In this case, the city agreed to make adjustments to the lights or provide shields to limit light exposure. The shields are an added project expense that the city will absorb.

In an ideal situation, Duke Energy and the City of Durham could have worked together to install smart street lighting technology and not simply LEDs. By having networked smart lights, the city/utility could actively control, operate and manage the lights. They could set dimming schedules, adjust individual lights as requested, and be proactive when a light fails. 

By not adding lighting controls at the onset of the LED changeover, Durham missed a golden opportunity. They had the chance to give their residents better customer service while laying a smart city foundation for future applications.  

Through it all, I completely understand the frustrations of my neighbors. I wish the city and Duke Energy would have taken a different path. This was an opportunity for Durham to go “smart.”

Only time will tell if the city’s remedy will suffice. In the meantime, many of my neighbors are still “Blinded by the Light.”