August 9, 2009

Let there be NIGHT.

The quality of our night sky is under siege.
Energy efficiency wasn’t on my mind as we drove down Monticello Avenue late one night, but I suddenly sounded like Andy Rooney. “Do you ever wonder why the bank is dark at midnight and the mattress store across the street is lit up like Times Square? Does anyone but me see the irony in that?” I asked.

Excessive lighting to catch your eye? High wattage advertising? Perhaps. But we’ve lost the night sky—even in the suburbs. Mankind has created “light pollution” a little more than 100 years after Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb. We are addicted to artificial light and now have “24 hour days.”

One estimate indicates that about 30 percent of all light generated in the United States illuminates the sky, wasting $2.2 billion each year. Most of the wasted light in cities comes from poorly designed streetlights. Billboards, gas stations, sports fields, parking lots, and poorly shielded security lights are part of the problem too.

But homeowners are not guilt free. The EPA website says that lighting accounts for almost 20 percent of the average home’s electric bill. Collectively that’s more than $37 billion annually (about $130 per person). Yet many of our homes are lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree. We are doing very little to combat this, which is like all of us walking past a $50 dollar bill on the sidewalk and not picking it up.

Skyglow over populated areas is causing the Milky Way galaxy to fade, even in our local suburban areas. Can you remember the first time your “astronomy gene” kicked in as you looked up at a starry sky far away from city lights? Now more than two-thirds of the U.S. population cannot see the stars in our Milky Way from their backyard.
The United Nations declared 2009 the International Year of Astronomy to commemorate the 400 years since Galileo turned his telescope upward. However, it’s goodbye to Orion as many lights project skyward. Under a dark, unpolluted sky, more than 5000 stars should be visible. Yet only a few hundred remain visible from suburban locations with moderate light pollution—fewer in large cities.

NASA has an attention-grabbing website about wasted light at

Dark as the inside of a cow — Is how my husband described darkness to our children. Current estimates are that a child born today has less than a 1 in 10 chance of ever experiencing a truly dark sky. That child's best chance to see a natural night is likely to be in a national park. Yet even a remote national park like Yosemite is not immune from stray artificial light. A drive down the Colonial Parkway can show you how Historic Jamestowne and Yorktown national parks offer far from pristine dark skies.

Did You Know?--Mega-lighting can provide a false sense of security and help criminals see what they are doing. Lights triggered by motion sensors are much more effective in indicating the pres­ence of an intruder.

--99% of the population live in an area that scientists consider light polluted. The rate at which light pollution is increasing will leave almost no dark skies in the contiguous U.S. by 2025.
--The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that if Americans replaced the five most frequently used light bulbs/fixtures with energy-efficient alternatives, every homeowner would save as much as $65 each year, resulting in annual energy cost savings of $8 billion. That would also prevent the greenhouse gases equivalent to emissions from nearly 10 million cars. In addition more than $2 billion would be saved if all lights were shielded or pointed downward.

--President Obama estimates that the new lighting standards would cut 594 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions between 2012 and 2042 and save American energy users $1 billion to $4 billion each year over that period—conserving enough energy to eliminate the need for as many as 14 new coal-fired power plants.

Who Is Taking Notice?--Scientists and medical experts now recognize the darker aspects (pun intended) of lighting the night, including harm to wildlife (especially sea turtles and migrating birds) and human health—not to mention wasteful energy use. Some bird species depend on stars for navigation. Light pollution interferes with their migration and reproduction.
--The American Medical Association recognized the impact of light pollution to our health and now advocates that all future outdoor lighting be energy-efficient to reduce energy waste and the resulting greenhouse gases.

--Some of the last dark skies in the country can be found in our national parks, and the National Park Service has aggressively seeks to reduce or eliminate the adverse impacts of light pollution. Throughout 2009, many national parks will hold special programs in celebration of the International Year of Astronomy.
--U.S. Congress is also taking up the issue of light pollution in recent hearings.
--Flagstaff has tightened its light regulations to protect the view from nearby Lowell Observatory. In 2001 it was declared the first International Dark Sky City.
--In September of 2009, New Hampshire’s “dark skies policy” will take effect and encourage efficient outdoor lighting. The policy encourages municipalities to enact local ordinances and regulations to conserve energy from outdoor lighting, to minimize light pollution and glare, and to preserve dark skies as a rural feature.

What can YOU do? Make it a point to notice the light clutter on your local streets as you drive at night in the coming weeks. Poorly designed streetlights and brightly lit advertising can cause accidents as they distract your eyes from true obstacles. Depending on the motives of those who installed the lights, their placement and design may even be intended to distract drivers.

Complain to a store manager or car sales lot if you think it’s light pollution. Are parking lots near you projecting light up as well as down?
Install motion sensors on your essential outdoor lighting or timers or dimmers. Accept that more is not better. Minimize over-illumination by buying energy-efficient and intelligently designed low-glare outdoor lighting. Best, of course, use solar powered lights along sidewalks and at the beginning of your driveway. Unless you’re a pilot and used to the look of runways, avoid lining up numerous lights along the entire edge of your driveway.
Did you know there is a certification body, the International Dark-Sky Association, that evaluates sky-friendly outdoor lighting with low glare and high efficiency? Look for the IDA seal of approval on fixtures that do not emit any light above a 90 degree angle. See the IDA Web site at for a list of approved fixtures and manufacturers, as well as vendors who distribute dark sky friendly fixtures or seek out a company such as Starry Night Lights, which specializes in low pollution lighting. They also have a blog on light pollution and related issues.

Street light on 24 hours per day in your neighborhood? Report it to Dominion Virginia Power at 1-888-667-3000.

Shed some light by eliminating upward-pointing outdoor lights and “de-lamping” or turning off lights. What were we thinking? We installed far too many can lights in our kitchen when we built our home. Some are never used.

Lower the glow of those stray lumens by installing shields or cutoffs to reflect useful light downward rather than into the atmosphere.