Some in Government Hill hate a new LED streetlight

Dan and Regine Berube noticed right away when the new LED streetlight appeared on a small side street beside their Government Hill home.

At night, bright white light flooded into the windows and backyard. Regine, a native of France used to softer tones in streetlights, started to have trouble sleeping.

That was in November. Now, at night, the Berubes cover many of their windows with light-blocking shades. They also huddled with next-door neighbors. This month, they made the decision to ask the city electric utility, Municipal Light and Power, to remove the light entirely.

City officials are now reviewing the request after the Government Hill Community Council formally backed it this week.

As ML&P crews swap out 4,000 orange sodium-vapor streetlights for the blue-white, energy-saving LED bulbs this year, a priority for Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, such battles may become more common.

At the community council meeting, Dan Berube didn't get support from all his neighbors. Both the council president and vice president voiced concern about the security implications of removing a light.

Municipal efforts to strike a balance between safety, energy efficiency and "dark skies" preferences have played out in other U.S. cities, including New York. A New York Times story last summer chronicled the split between the neighbors who saw LED streetlights as effective in deterring crime and those who saw LEDs as a nuisance.

To manage those issues, the Anchorage utility is turning to technology. This week, ML&P started installing wireless controllers on LED lights in Mountain View and near Merrill Field. The controls allow the lights to be dimmed or brightened remotely. ML&P can also learn which lights have gone out, cutting maintenance costs, officials say.

[Related: Anchorage slated to upgrade streetlights to 'smart grid' technology]

The dimmers won't be coming to Government Hill until the end of summer or early fall, based on the schedule, Gary Agron, division manager of engineering at ML&P, told the council at its Thursday meeting.

Berube said he'd accept the light being dimmed or repositioned. But he said he was told that removal was the only option in the short term.

Berube works as an energy management consultant for Alaska Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that specializes in energy efficiency and weatherization projects around the state. He's changed a lot of lights in his career.

In his house in Government Hill, Berube purchased a mix of incandescent and halogen lights. He also installed a LED light directly above a shelf by the kitchen.

But there, the light is pointing directly downward, he said.

"You try to direct the light," Berube said.

Berube said he isn't against LED streetlights, which he said are far more efficient and longer-lasting than the old sodium-vapor bulbs. The ML&P project is slated to save about $350,000 in energy costs and $50,000 in maintenance each year. 

But he has a problem with how white the new lights are, which he says isn't healthy. He believes the city should change the lights to emit softer, warmer light on the red side of spectrum, going from 4,000 kelvin to 3,000 kelvin.

"It becomes a bigger picture, a bigger question as to how the city will look lit up, more white," Berube said.

The city's engineering design manual calls for the LED lights to emit light around 4,000 kelvin. ML&P officials say that's appropriate for Anchorage — they say streetlights aren't used in the summer and there's little difference in the glare from snow between the whiter and the softer light.

Berube also said the lights should be properly designed and positioned in the neighborhood. On his kitchen table, Berube spread out photos, where an oval overlaid on an aerial photograph showed how the LED light was hitting him and his neighbor, Steve Gerlek.

Berube and his wife complained about the old sodium-vapor streetlight, too, which Berube said was installed long ago at the request of another neighbor who has since passed away. ML&P installed blinders to direct the light downward, he said. The new LED streetlight does not have the blinders.

At Thursday's Government Hill Community Council Meeting, Berube made his case. Kyle Stevens, the vice president of the community council, was unconvinced. That side street is dark and Anchorage is facing an uptick in crime, he said.

"Removing and creating a darker spot, where in other areas we're trying to increase lighting … I'm concerned about the overall impact to the community," Stevens said.

But a former president of the council, Stephanie Kesler, was on Berube's side.

"Do we want to have a Wal-Mart light on every single corner?" Kesler said.

Kesler also questioned who would make the call to ML&P about dimming or brightening lights if neighbors send in opposing complaints.

"It's great we have the technology, but operationally, I think there might be some issues with it," Kesler said.

Agron, the division manager of engineering at ML&P, said complaints about brightness aren't new. People thought the sodium-vapor lights were too bright, and he said the utility expects the same for LED lights.

With Berube's complaint, ML&P staff will review the request with city traffic engineers and street maintenance workers to decide the best way forward, Agron said.

The wireless controls on streetlights are designed to respond to a variety of concerns more quickly and efficiently, Agron said.

Referring to law enforcement's way of alerting the public to a kidnapped child, he said, "If we have an Amber Alert, we can brighten up the whole place so people see it much brighter."

"Or between midnight and 5 a.m., when there's not as much traffic, we can dim even further to achieve greater savings for the city," he said.

The president of the council, Melinda Gant, voted against sending Berube's letter to ML&P. She also said she was concerned about safety, pointing to a crime assessment conducted last fall by an Anchorage police officer who said the neighborhood's alleys were very dark.

[An Anchorage police officer tries a new approach to tackle neighborhood crime concerns]

The officer, Robin Nave, recommended that residents install motion-sensor lights at the back of private property to light up alleys, as well as "motion or steady lights aimed into parks or wooded tree lines, for homes that are across from them." 

Gant was worried that the removal of the light could coincide with an uptick in crime. It would be difficult to go back to ML&P and ask for the light to be re-installed, she said.

"I'm not against security, a safe neighborhood," said Berube, who disputed that crime could prevented by bright lights.

He's against being awake at night with white light coming in the windows, he said.

Correction: The original version of this story indicated that some residents were concerned about the brightness of LED lights as measured in lumens. The residents were rather complaining about the white light emitted by the LED streetlights, as expressed in units of kelvin.