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Astronomers big on Power Smart's battle against light pollution

Detail of a photo of the Pelican Nebula taken by John McDonald through a telescope at Astronomy Hill near Victoria in 2007. (W.J. McDonald photo)

Rob Klovance
bchydro.com

It took a trip to Saltspring Island for amateur astronomer John McDonald’s grandkids from Vancouver to see the milky way for the first time. But for McDonald, it’s the story of a group of visiting Tokyo schoolkids that hammers home the allure of the elusive dark sky.

“These kids were staying at a fairly dark place up island,” says McDonald, a retiree who lives in Victoria. “Someone took them out at night to show them the milky way… and they couldn’t’ get them to go back in.

“These kids had never seen a star except the sun.”

McDonald and other B.C. star-gazers couldn’t be happier to hear that BC Hydro Power Smart has launched a campaign to fight light pollution that includes rebates on flat lens streetlight products. To them, the need is significant and the timing is perfect – the United Nations has declared 2009 the International Year of Astronomy, an initiative that coincides with the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of the telescope.

It's not just about dark skies

And if you’re thinking that an astronomer's battle against light pollution is just a tad self-serving, think again. Before we start talking about the stars, McDonald has already dealt with a laundry list of light pollution costs – wasted energy, wasted money, dangerous glare for drivers and detrimental effects on wildlife, including birds and fish.

“I think most of us are very keenly aware of the fact we’re using up energy, and that there’s a cost to it,” says McDonald, fresh off a trip to Costa Rica in which he shot a mind-blowing time-lapse video of the sky throughout the night. “And the amount of energy that is wasted in lighting up the bottoms of clouds and sending light off into space to do nothing is a considerable expense. It’s billions of dollars in North America.”

Our 'addiction'  to light

Most of us think that the brighter the outdoor lighting, the better. McDonald thinks that attitude is a byproduct of growing up in an age here in B.C. where “hydro power has been basically a free service”. He speaks of us being addicted to light while largely ignoring the costs of that addiction.

In 1996, at the request of the US Congress, the National Institute of Justice conducted a landmark assessment of crime and violence in the United States. The study found little research to support the idea of “brighter-is-safer”, and even suggested that in some circumstances poorly designed illumination might actually increase personal vulnerability.

“There’s nothing worse than having somebody with motion security lighting,” says another astronomer, Paul Greenhalgh of Abbotsford. “To me it’s not security at all, it’s illumination. The day that a streetlight walks into court and testifies that this guy did what he did – that he stole that car - is the day I’ll eat my telescope.”

A billion bucks in wasted energy

Inefficient and excessive night lighting causes significant loss of energy globally. In North America, the energy wasted in illuminating the sky is estimated at a billion dollars. Good, clean outdoor lighting improves visibility, safety, and a sense of security, while minimizing energy use, operating costs, and ugly, dazzling glare.

There are three types of light pollution:

  • Light trespass, which occurs when light crosses property lines. Poor outdoor lighting shines onto neighbours' properties and into bedroom windows, reducing privacy, hindering sleep, and giving the area an unattractive look.
  • Glare, which comes from an overly bright source of light compared to background lighting levels. Glare  is light that beams directly from a lamp into your eye. It serves no purpose and hampers the vision of pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. If you can see the bright lamp from a distance, it's a bad light. With a good light, you see lit ground instead of the dazzling lamp.
  • Sky glow, which spills upward from urbanized areas and blocks the view of the stars

If we were to think of lamps as taps and leaking light rays as drops of water, we would never tolerate it. But, we seldom think about the impact of light pollution.

Reducing light pollution has a variety of benefits, including energy savings and helping eliminate light exposure that disrupts sleep cycles, causes fatigue and strains the immune system.

What we can do to help

 

Greenhalgh’s Fraser Valley Astronomers Society has successfully lobbied the City of Abbotsford to apply a new policy to streetlighting. All new streetlamps in the city will be fitted with full cutoff lighting, which all but eliminates light not central to the task of lighting the street. And all existing lamps will be retrofitted with full cutoffs as part of their ongoing maintainence cycle.

Power Smart is out to remind people that we all have the power to help reduce light pollution and save energy and money, both with the lighting choices we make at home and the choices we make at our businesses.

Here’s a short list of things we can do:

  • Assess your requirements. Ask yourself if the lighting is really needed. If so, determine what area has to be lit, how much illumination is needed, and when is the lighting required.
  • Adopt “part-night lighting” by turning off non-essential lights after midnight. You save energy and money.
  • Install timers or motion sensors to turn your security lighting on only when needed. You save energy and money.
  • Adjust your security and outdoor lights so that they do not trespass into your neighbours’ house. Casting light onto adjacent areas is a waste of energy
  • Direct light where it is needed. Use lights that shield the lamp and direct the light down rather than out and away.
  • Avoid glare. A luminaire that emits a concentrated beam of light offers better visibility than one that shines light in all directions. In certain cases, glare can compromise safety.
  • Choose the most efficient lamps. Certain types of lamps consume less energy than others with the same light output. Choose lamps with a high lamp efficacy such as CFLs.
  • Choose the right luminaire. Light directed towards the sky does not improve night vision.
  • Choose luminaires that have a flat lens and a shield that completely shades the upper surface of the lamp or are classified as cut off and full cutoff by IESNA (Illumination Engineering Society of North America). The lamps sit back further in these luminaires causing the light to be cast down rather than out to the side. Therefore light cannot escape above 90 degrees horizontal plane. You can even install the lights under balconies and eaves.

How BC Hydro is fighting light pollution

BC Hydro is doing its part to reduce light pollution and help its customers save energy and money. Some of BC Hydro’s initiatives that help customers reduce light pollution and save energy include:

  • In-store instant discounts on ENERGY STAR light fixtures and ENERGY STAR Specialty CFL lamps. These lamps use up to 75% less energy than regular incandescent lamps.
    Mail in rebates for the purchase of ENERGY STAR CFL lamps.
  • Funding for studies to determine how municipalities can use adaptive street lighting to reduce street lighting levels without impacting safety. This will help municipalities dim their street lights by up to 50% during low traffic periods.
  • Incentives for business customers to install lighting controls such as timers and occupancy sensors to turn of lights when lighting is not required.
  • Incentives for municipalities and businesses to install ornamental streetlights with high efficiency lamps with flat lenses. The fully-shielded flat-lens lamps do an equally good job of illuminating the road by directing the light to where it is needed without sending light up into the sky or out into your eyes. The ground and roadway will be well illuminated. And, because no light is wasted, a lower wattage lamp can be used to illuminate the desired area.
  • Technical and financial assistance to customers who plan to reduce their lighting energy consumption by re-designing their lighting and de-lamping to reduce over illumination.
  • Lighting design tools and financial incentives for developers and builders of new buildings.
  • Funding for energy managers who target energy efficiency measures at customers’ facilities.
  • Training and development opportunities on energy conservation for businesses and their employees.


    

Source: BC Hydro News