(note: I have sent this letter to Mayor Dean, Megan Barry, Diane Neighbors, Jerry Maynard, Emily Evans, and Jason Holleman, and I will post their replies as they come in and make this a basis for a story on my July radio show.)
We live on the northwest side of Nashville. It gets pretty dark here at night, and when we look to the north or west we can actually see quite a few stars. My wife and I really enjoy this.
Recently, while driving on nearby Briley Parkway, I noticed that streetlights are being installed. I had no idea this was happening and would certainly have done my best to nip it in the bud if anybody had informed me, but the erection of the poles was the first notice I had–I had seen crews installing wire earlier, but didn’t grasp what it was for.
I am not happy about this for aesthetic reasons–it will erode our view of the stars–but it galls me for practical ones as well. There are streetlights all along Ashland City Highway, Clarksville Pike, and White’s Creek Pike, but there is almost no traffic on these roads, and very little late night traffic on Briley Parkway, either. At a time when the city’s budget is stretched to the breaking point, when we are considering closing Metro General Hospital and other vital services in the city’s social safety net, why are we spending who knows how much money lighting empty roads, and now, on Briley Parkway, spending even more to light yet another empty road?
Our tax bill is one of our biggest expenses–we pay more in property taxes than we spend on our electric bill over the course of a year, and I do not appreciate seeing our money wasted in this way, especially “in light” of the communication I recently received from the Mayor’s office, urging me to sign a pledge to conserve electricity, among other things. If the city wants us to be frugal, why doesn’t it set an example instead of being profligate?
There are larger issues involved, too–the electrical generation that keeps those lights burning contributes to global warming, as well as air pollution here in Nashville ( As I understand it, the coal-burning plants that supply most of our electricity are upwind from Nashville on the Tennessee River.), and I also think we are probably very near the end of the era of private automobiles, and should not be doing things to further accommodate and encourage them. Most people, unfortunately, are pretty ignorant of these possibilities, but I am mentioning them to you because I think you have some understanding of what’s going on. For short-term political purposes, the economic argument will have to suffice.
So, what can be done? Is there a way that we, as a city, can do what our parents tried to train us to do and turn the lights off when everybody leaves the room? I have wondered if it would be possible to install some kind of motion sensors on streetlights, so they would only light up if a vehicle was approaching, but a friend tells me that the kind of lamps used for street lighting do not lend themselves to being turned off and on a lot.
As an aside, maybe the city could require or encourage motion sensors on “security lights.” If they only came on when triggered, that would actually add to the security they offer, save a lot of electricity, and cut down the night-time glare that blinds us to the stars. Another possibility would be to follow the same protocol with streetlights in low traffic areas that the city uses with low-demand traffic lights. Just as these traffic lights turn into blinking caution/stop lights between 11PM and 6AM, maybe we could turn these underutilized streetlights off during those same hours. This is a compromise for me, but it might make sense to enough people to get some traction as a proposal.
Please let me know what you think.
P.S. Full disclosure–As you may be aware, I have a radio show and blog, and write for the Nashville Free Press. I am planning on posting your response on my blog, and possibly using it in my radio show and NFP column, so if there is anything you would like to tell me “off the record,” please indicate that clearly and I will respect your wishes.
It has now been nearly a month since I sent this letter, and I must say I am disappointed to have received only one reply, from my own councilman, Lonnell Matthews, who said
I understand your concern, and I am not going to pretend to be an engineer in my response. I would like to preface my statement by saying that three of the routes; Ashland City Hwy., Clarksville Hwy., and Briley Pky.; that you have mentioned are state routes and they have the jurisdiction over any work or improvements completed on this route. I would encourage you to contact your state representative with your concerns. I will guess that the installation of lights are a preventive measure, to avoid any accident that could occur due to limited vision on Briley Pky. I will forward your concerns to Representative Gilmore and Senator Harper.
Need I add that I have not heard from them, either? But I did call TDOT, and found out that the streetlights in question are not their responsibility, but the city’s, and also that one of my surmises was wrong, in a good news/bad news kind of way: the posts on Briley Parkway will not hold streetlights, but surveillance cameras. No, Briley Parkway is not a hotbed of terrorism or crime. It’s part of the “Smartway” program, which is responsible for those lighted signs on the road that tell you how badly the traffic ahead is snarled. Cost? According to TDOT’s website,
The yearly cost to operate an urban system is about $1.3 million annually. In contrast to building a roadway, deployment of TDOT SmartWay costs about $500,000 per mile compared to $2.5 million per mile to build a single lane of new roadway.
So it’s just chump change, really, and TDOT sez it is “not used to catch speeders,” so there. Just five hundred grand per mile, just a mil and a third a year to run it. As if we are all going to be driving cars forever. The kind of thing our kids will look at in thirty years and say, angrily, if not hungrily, “You did WHAT with your money and energy?!”
My inquiry on streetlights and security lights led me to an engineer for Nashville Electric Service, who informed me that there are 65,000 security lights in Nashville and 110,000 streetlights. They are mandated on all streets in the urban services district, and are installed by petition (and paid for by the petitioners) in outlying parts of the county. Who decided to put the lights on the highways in my neighborhood? Who pays for them? I’m guessing it’s the city, not the neighborhood, although, given how common it is for people to be afraid of the dark, I’m sure there was general approval of the installation.
I had a lengthy phone conversation with another NES engineer, Nick Thompson, who gave me precise financial and electrical numbers for Nashville’s streetlights, but the numbers I will be using for security lights are somewhat conjectural.
Security lights come in wattages from 100 to 1,000, and in sodium and metal halide bulbs. The average size for them is about 340 watts. The cost averages sixteen dollars per month per light, which multiplies out to a million bucks a month, twelve million a year.
Total annual draw for street lights is 45 megawatts, which, divided by the number of street lights, 110,000, yields an average of slightly over 400 watts per light, which just happens to be the size streetlight found on the empty, rural roads around here that first aroused my curiosity. These lights, Nick informed me, cost $10.63 per month to operate, which is within a dollar of (and slightly higher than) my ballpark estimate of $10 per month per light. I feel proud of myself. Nick also told me that Nashville spends a total of about $250,000 a month to keep them on. Full disclosure: I over-estimated that number by a factor of four.
And my original question, the cost of rural streetlights on empty highways? Rural streetlight density is twenty-five per mile. That totals approximately two hundred and fifty dollars per mile per month, three thousand dollars per mile per year. For the three roads I mentioned in my letter, which total about twenty miles of right-of-way, the bill would then run to about sixty thousand dollars a year. Not much money in the greater scheme of things, I admit, but more money than I’ve ever earned in a year by a factor of about three.
Now, follow me through a little more math. The lights we are discussing burn an average of twelve hours a day, from dark ’till dawn, so I estimate that our sixty-five thousand security lights require approximately eleven megawatts of electricity per year, while our city’s hundred and ten thousand streetlights, according to Nick, pull forty-five megawatts. So that’s a total of about fifty-five megawatts–only a drop in the bucket, really, when you consider that Nashville burned through nearly thirteen million megawatts of electricity last year. Compared to that, what does the energy for those miles of streetlights burning all night on empty roads amount to? Peanuts! What’s my problem?
“A million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money,” Everett Dirksen is reputed to have joked, back in the days when Republicans had some integrity. (not that Democrats have much these days, either!) And that attitude is what’s at work here. To me, our casualness about this amount of electricity indicates how spoiled we are and how far we have to fall. “The American Way of Life Is Not Negotiable,” our government insists, no matter who’s in charge, and rural streetlights are part of it. These lights, so casually kept on all night in the name of safety and security, are one of the thousands of ways we are trapped by our own expectations, snared in a net of false needs, slowly strangling not only ourselves but the whole world and generations yet unborn for the sake of luxury undreamed of even a century ago.
My proposal that we could turn off even some of these lights is nowhere taken seriously. The American way of life is not negotiable, dammit! As a country, we are cluelessly drifting into a catastrophe that will permanently put out all our lights. If we would only take the initiative to shut a few of them off voluntarily, it could be the first step on a path that might give us a chance of averting the worst of what otherwise awaits us. But we’re just too damn comfortable. …for now.