Send Ben: Lights out for LED street light savings in Jacksonville that may be good for the environment but not taxpayers

American Medical Association shines light on potential negative health impacts

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — An Action News Jax investigation reveals the City of Jacksonville went millions of dollars over what it projected to spend to replace and operate tens of thousands of LED streetlights.

Colby West and his girlfriend Melissa like to walk their dogs at night, when more than stars light up the Jacksonville sky. “This is a good street to walk on,” says West. “They just put in a lot of these [lights] here recently.” Action News Jax first told you in 2014 that the City had started a program to flip the switch to LED lights from sodium lights that gave off that familiar yellow glow.

The bright idea? Improve safety and save money.

The City told Action News Jax at the time that it would cost $24 million to change more than 110,000 lights in the ensuing years. But in an Action News Jax investigation, Ben Becker obtained data from the city via JEA that reveals the program ended up costing nearly $35 million  — a 45% increase. “That’s a huge percentage change in a short period of time,” says Bill Bishop, who was a member of city council in 2014 and supported the program but now has concerns about the overall cost.  “What comes to mind is what went into that original estimate,” said Bishop. The city told Action News Jax seven years ago that the annual billing for power and parts was $9.3 million a year, but a change to LED lighting would save taxpayers $2.7 million a year.

Annual billing covers not just the LED power, but also fixtures, parts, and maintenance that the city repays JEA over decades for buying upfront.  Becker emailed the city to find out how much is being saved but was told: “We (COJ) do not have this information.”

Becker called JEA, which did supply numbers and it was illuminating. From 2016 when the LED light transition began, until the most recent available numbers in 2020, energy usage has gone down by 50%, but the city’s annual billing has gone up from $9.3 million to $10.5 million.  JEA told Becker “LED lights are more expensive to purchase.”

“How do you balance the environmental part with the cost part?” Becker asked Ashantae Green, supervisor of the Duval Soil and Water Conservation District.

“That’s a very good question,” said Green. “As we improve infrastructure there is a cost to get to current times.”

Becker made numerous additional requests for comment from the City regarding his cost findings and never received an answer.

As for West, he says the lights improve safety, but takes a dim view of the price tag. “That’s a lot of money for some lights, it really is if they are needed,” says West. “Needs and wants are a big difference.” The American Medical Association is critical of LED lights.

JEA tells Becker the LED lights that replaced the sodium ones measure 4,000 Kelvin - the old ones ranged from 1,900 to 4000 Kelvin. A Kelvin measures color temperature that your eyes register as glare: the higher the Kelvin, the bluer and more intense the light.

The AMA recommends temperatures no greater than 3000 Kelvin, saying “despite the energy efficiency benefits, some LED lights are harmful when used as street lighting. 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.”

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