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Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/Jaro Nemčok

Chicago will lose its orange street light glow by 2020

Written by
Clayton Guse

It's hard to miss Chicago's orange "glow" during the nighttime—it's an iconic detail of the city that comes with its own chest-thumping pride. Chicagoans can get strangely excited about the amount of light pollution that pours out of the city, but a new initiative will rid it of its amber hue by the end of the decade. 

On Monday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office announced an update on the Chicago Smart Lighting Project, which will swap out more than 270,000 (or about 85 percent) of the city's outdated high-pressure sodium lamps for LED lights over the next four years—it's set to be one of the biggest municipal lighting programs in the country. The plan was announced last September, but this week the city laid out a timeline for the project that makes the loss of Chicago's amber glow a looming reality.

The new LED bulbs will have a more conventional white glow, and produce more light than the current orange sodium lights using a fraction of the electricity. The update will avoid using public capital, as the savings in energy will shoulder the cost of the project.

But before you drop your Italian beef and jump on your soapbox, consider the widespread benefits of employing LED lighting.

A 2011 study from the University of Colorado found that Chicago has the most light pollution of any city in the world—a distinction that locals shouldn't exactly brag about, considering that light pollution has been proven to contribute to ozone breakdown. Switching to LED bulbs ought to go a long way toward fixing that problem. On top of that, the project would allow for the city to bring a much-needed update to its lighting electricity grid and fiber optic network, both of which are grossly out of date.

The city had its orange since the 1970s when Mayor Richard J. Daley rolled out sodium bulbs to light up the city and save money. In the four decades since, upgrades in lighting technology such as LED have made the old lamps obsolete. In 2011, federal funding allowed the city to convert street lights along Western Avenue and Lake Shore Drive to LED bulbs, which paid off in increased energy efficiency without showing any negative effects on the surrounding community. Greater nighttime visibility has also been found to improve safety, according to a press release from the city.

So get ready, Chicago, because you're about to shine a little brighter. 

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