Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Off Beat: Light Pollution and You

You may or may not have heard about light pollution before. If you're an amateur astronomer or know one, you've probably either complained about it at some point or heard someone complain about it. Light pollution is the name given to the effect that outdoor lighting has on the night sky. Outdoor lights often have a tendency of not only lighting up the ground, but also sending light up into the sky. This causes the stars in the sky to be "washed out", and far less visible. The picture above shows the difference between an area with little outdoor lighting, and one with an increased amount of outdoor lighting. As you can see, there are far more stars in the sky in these so called "dark locations".

So unless you like looking up at the stars at night, why should you care? Well, you may not care about being able to see all the stars in Orion, but you may care about money and the environment.

You may be wondering, "how does light pollution effect your wallet as well as the environment"? While lighting up the sky does not directly cause harm to the environment, producing the electricity to light up a larger area than necessary does. This also costs more money to produce the wasted light. Every year nations all over the globe spend billions on powering outdoor lights. They also create real pollution to produce the electricity to power these lights. These costs, as well as the pollution associated with generating the power, could be cut substantially if power was not being wasted to brighten up the sky.
Full cutoff lights like the rightmost fixture in the above picture improve visibility and save money. 
Outdoor lighting serves a very important purpose: lighting up the ground. Outdoor lights make areas safer, and improve visibility for pedestrians and drivers. However, by scattering light in all directions, these lights waste power. Outdoor lighting fixtures called full cutoff lights stop light from leaking into space. They function by reflecting the light that would normally be sent to the sky back down to the ground. In doing so, they can make the ground brighter, while using lower wattage light bulbs, therefore using far less power. A 40 watt light bulb in a full cutoff fixture can be as effective as a 100 watt light bulb in a normal fixture.

Wasted electricity, wasted money, horrible view of the night sky. 
This means a full cutoff fixture can use less than half the electricity of other lighting fixtures, reducing cost and environmental impact. With the billions of outdoor lights in the world, the cost of converting the fixtures to full cutoff lights can be justified by the immense impact it will have in the future. Energy costs would go down, making up for the initial purchase price, and the environmental impact of powering these outdoor lights would be heavily reduced as well. Public lighting is paid for by taxes, which could be reduced if the cost of operating those lights was reduced as well. Finally, someone is going to have to install these new lighting fixtures. This means that new jobs would have to be created to install them. More people with jobs means a more stable economy.
Better visibility using less electricity.
So why has this gotten so little attention? Many people are feeling the pressure of the economy. People want lower taxes, lower electricity bills, and they would like to help the environment. Why wouldn't this be getting national attention? There are two main reasons why this hasn't become a large scale movement: initial cost, and lack of knowledge.

The initial cost of replacing the outdated lighting fixtures all over the nation could be in the billions. Not only would the fixtures need to be purchased, but people will need to be hired to evaluate where they're needed, as well as installing them. However, the overhaul doesn't need to happen overnight. Small cities, or even small towns could see policy change first. By staggering the spending, time is made to replace the initial startup cost with electricity savings. By cutting the cost of outdoor lighting in half, a community or a country would have no difficulty making up the initial startup costs in just a few years, or less time, depending on how much was being spent on outdoor lighting. After this initial startup cost is paid, the savings would be enormous.

Currently, few people know about light pollution. If you're reading this, you may have known nothing of the issue until today. With so few people complaining about the issue, lawmakers have no motivation to fix the problem. Until they see that fighting for darker skies will win them votes, they're not going to be concerned. That's why action needs to be taken. Voters need to spread the word that they want darker skies, less pollution, smaller electricity bills, more jobs, and lower taxes. They need to send letters to lawmakers, or simply educate others of the issue. If word spreads around that there is an easy solution to improve the economy, as well as get a better view of the night sky, people will be more enthusiastic about seeing drastic change in outdoor lighting. If you'd like to make a difference, it can be as easy as joining an organization like the International Dark-Sky Association, writing a letter to your congressmen, or simply telling a friend about light pollution. You can even replace your current outdoor lighting with full cutoff lights, to save money in your own home. You can find lighting solutions in any hardware store, as well as recommended fixtures on the International Dark-Sky Association's website. Every little thing you can do will help. The power is in your hands, go out and make a difference today.