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Westward view from the Willis Tower
Wikimedia CommonsWestward view from the Willis Tower

Is Chicago about to lose its orange glow?

Written by
Clayton Guse

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city to bring a much-needed update to its lighting electricity grid and fiber optic network, both of which are grossly out of date.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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