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News / City Life

Is Chicago about to lose its orange glow?

Westward view from the Willis Tower
Wikimedia Commons Westward view from the Willis Tower

Anyone who's familiar with Chicago knows about the orange "glow" that emanates from the city's skyline. If you fly into Chicago or look towards it from a nearby suburb at night, you'll see bright streaks of light jutting out into the sky. This phenomenon, a form of light pollution called glare, is a product of the high-pressure sodium-vapor lamps that illuminate almost all of the streets across town.

That iconic orange hue could soon be a thing of the past. Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office and the Chicago Infrastructure Trust announced plans to modernize the city's lighting. The initiative, dubbed the Chicago Smart Lighting Project, aims to transition the city's approximately 348,500 outdoor lights to more energy-efficient LED technology, as well as update the lighting grid infrastructure. The lighting updates would avoid using public capital as much as possible, as the savings in energy would shoulder much of the cost. 

LED lights are drastically more efficient than the old sodium bulbs currently in place—they produce the same amount of light with a fraction of the electricity. The new lights would produce white light, and would all but get rid of the orange color that has become synonymous with the nighttime Chicago sky. But before you drop your hot dog and get on an ill-advised civic pride soapbox, consider the benefits that come with LED lighting.

According to a 2011 study from the University of Colorado, Chicago has the most light pollution out 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. The lighting update ought to go a long way in 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city to bring a much-needed update to its lighting electricity grid and fiber optic network, both of which are grossly out of date.

Chicago has been lit up in orange since the 1970s when Mayor Richard J. Daley rolled out sodium bulbs to brighten the city better and save money. In the four decades since, those bulbs have become incredibly inefficient compared to other lighting sources like LED. Further, much of the city still has 1950s era electrical poles, wiring and infrastructure. 

In 2011, federal funding allowed Chicago to switch street lights along Western Avenue and Lake Shore Drive to LED technology. That undertaking has paid off in energy efficiency, and did not have a substantial negative impact on the surrounding community. In a press release, the mayor's office said that improving the city's lighting will also increase public safety and provide a better living environment for residents. It'd be hard to argue that an increase in safety is not a worthy sacrifice for an affinity to the color orange.

So next time you take pride in the city's glow, remember that you're also taking pride in its inefficiency and pollution.

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Comments

6 comments
Matt S

Why would you refer to that building as Willis tower? It is the Sears Tower and some sponsorship agreement does nothing to compel you or any other Chicagoan to change your terminology when discussing our fair city and her skyline. You may as well call Wrigley Field, Enron Park, in your next column. Come on already

Jim C

Lake Shore Drive and Western Av. are much more pleasant with the current lighting. If that will set the standard for the city, I'm all for it.

Robert D

The new LED lights on Lake Shore Drive have more focused coverage that produces alternating patches of light and shadow, dramatically negatively affecting driving visibility at night.  Also, at any given time stretches of lighting on Lake Shore Drive are now completely dark.  That never used to be the case.  As far as I can tell, it is a far more unsafe road to drive on with the new lighting. 

Kathy P

Does it have a significant positive impact?

Daniel H

@Kathy P Dramatically increased energy efficiency means substantially reduced carbon impact.  That is significant and positive.

Craig K

@Daniel H @Kathy P But it really is much darker than before, especially at the northern end of the Drive. There is one old light left near Foster and the difference in brightness is stunning. I am sure more accidents are going to take place.