Portland continues its quest to become Tronland, re-illuminating our neighborhoods with the blue-white glare of high-intensity, high-efficiency LED streetlights.

The $18.5 million streetlight-replacement project commenced last year, signaling Portland’s joining Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and other cities in the higher-efficiency conversion. The orange-pink tint of high-pressure sodium (HPS) lamps, a classic color of nighttime cityscapes, will quickly become another reference point, like the internet, of how each generation must re-learn to see its world.

A new light vs an old light.Not only will the new LED street lamps save the city of Portland 12% of its electricity bill (which means that the project will pay for itself in as little as seven years, according to Peter Koonce, City Manager of Signals, Street Lighting), but LED offers a broader, more even light spectrum than the old orange lamps.On roadways, LED light distribution spreads such that the traditional shadows between orange lamps will disappear. Color will appear truer than under the orange light. And they’ll “drastically reduce” anthropogenic sky glow (a poetically technical term for ‘light pollution’).

Over the long term, Portland’s investment will open up tens of millions of dollars that are currently being sucked up in burning coal for electricity. Theoretically, the project will help alleviate climate change.

“Technology is coming along,” says Koonce. “In ten years, you won’t be able to buy a high-pressure sodium lamp, just like mercury vapor before that, and fluorescent before that.”

That’s to say that LEDs are the Streetlamp Generation Z; we can’t stop ‘em from coming. Nevertheless, not everyone is enjoying the transition.

“LED street lights [are] hard to get used to,” says Multnomah Village business owner Fred Knack. “In the fog the LED light creates a disorienting halo.”

“Seeing multiple shadows from a single streetlight is an odd and almost dizzying sensation,” says Breitenbush employee Philip Oje, who recently experienced the new lamps for the first time. “The new lights seem to be very bright, but in a cold, mechanical way. As LED technology develops, I hope the multiple shadow thing will be addressed.”

Others are less forgiving. “LED may be an option,” says local musician Tyler Carson, “but what I saw beside Reed College is not something I would want to experience everywhere in the city.”

Since the project commenced, the city has received “mixed reviews,” including one person who said they were “going to move away” because of the “blinding lights.”
However, “for most people,” Koonce says, “the 70% energy savings is worth the change.”

Perhaps this energy-efficiency thing is just the way of the future – climate change, clean energy, saving money, saving the world, saving the human race… Since the Industrial Revolution, the developing world has built itself up with inefficient technologies, and when someone invents something better, some of us become nostalgic for that heavy, old, obsolete thing we’ve lost. I simply propose thinking about how sudden leaps into new technology might affect people — the sudden leap and the new technology. There need not be a ‘no’ involved here; we have postmodern think tanks, brilliant inventors, and centuries of experiments in new platforms of technology. Humans are learning more, and faster, than ever before.

Some of the new lights down near SE Division.For a project that will unequivocally, physiologically affect every denizen outside from dusk until dawn, one might ask: did the city consider how the LED lights would impact the people of Portland? The ordinance, unanimously-voted in late 2012, describes the project’s economic impact, and not much else. Is it a purely economic venture?


In September, a Portland Tribune article acknowledged the social consequences of the process in which the new lights are installed. It notes that the installation of LEDs is in lower-income neighborhoods first. The city didn’t want to “single out” any income bracket or race. In Seattle’s streetlight replacement project—the first in the nation—the city didn’t look at such details, and people complained: Why does X neighborhood get LED lights and ours doesn’t? Is it because we’re Poor? Rich? White? Black? Green?

A little extra digging turned up this article from Harvard Health, published in May 2012—a full seven months before Portland’s commissioners signed off on the project. The Harvard study posits that blue wavelengths of light, such as those emitted from Portland’s new street lamps, affect our circadian rhythms more than traditional orange street lamps, which emit a narrower yellow light spectrum. Blue light boosts our attention, reaction time, and mood – helpful for driving, not so much for getting proper rest.

“Study after study has linked working the night shift and exposure to light at night to several types of cancer (breast, prostate), diabetes, heart disease, and obesity…exposure to light suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that influences circadian rhythms, and there’s some experimental evidence…that lower melatonin levels might explain the association with cancer.”

– Harvard Health Publications, May 1, 2012

It might be an inappropriate stretch to say that Portland’s new streetlights will cause diabetes or cardiovascular problems in the denizens of our endearingly progressive city. The Harvard Health article does, however, state that “while light of any kind can suppress the secretion of melatonin, blue light does so more powerfully.” The FAQs over at the friendly city website claim that “there’s no evidence that LED lighting impacts human sleep cycles any differently than our traditional street lights.”

“There were some initial concerns about the color of light,” Koonce says. “Our testing in pilot programs and consultation with other cities found that the technology continued to improve in the nearly two years before we started installation.” The inconsistency between Koonce’s timeline and the publication in Harvard Health invites a closer look, perhaps, at how economic decisions made by the city may affect people on a deeper level than simply their wallets.

Written by Sean Talbot
Photography by Tyler Bertram