The City of Boulder is purchasing streetlights from Xcel Energy to save money, reduce environmental impacts and decrease outage time. Credit: John Herrick

If you want to have a say in how bright Boulder will be in the coming years, your chance is coming up.

Pilot projects are launching at the end of this month with the goal of determining the right LED light “temperature” for major roadways and residential areas. The pilots will launch as the City of Boulder puts the finishing touches on its deal with Xcel Energy to purchase all city streetlights to save money, reduce environmental harms and shorten outage time.

The city plans to install bulbs in streetlights at two locations: the junction of 28th Street and the Diagonal Highway, and near the Spruce Pool on Spruce Street. Boulderites can then use the BeHeardBoulder platform to share their LED preferences for these areas.

The city already owns about 600 lights and plans to acquire 4,500 more from Xcel by the end of this year or early next. This purchase is a relic of a process started years ago when Boulder tried to form its own electric utility.

Carolyn Elam, a sustainability senior manager with the city, said that when negotiating its franchise agreement with Xcel Energy, Boulder retained the option to buy the lights. Owning streetlights wasn’t an aspiration of the city, Elam said, but was seen as the best option “to get the outcome that was necessary.” That outcome includes cost savings and carbon emission benefits.

Over the next two years, the city will transition those 4,500 Xcel streetlights to LED bulbs. The conversion will save the city $500,000 a year. Because the city already owns a portion of streetlights, it’s had a taste of how efficient operating their own lights can be, prompting frustration for the old model.

“Xcel offers a streetlight design to meet a statewide need,” Elam said. “It’s the same product operating no matter where you are and what your community expectations are.”

One of the expectations is faster repair of blown streetlights. Lights currently owned by Xcel are, for lack of a better term, dumb lights. They don’t have a built-in mechanism to let operators know when they’re blown. Instead, the city relies on Boulderites reporting broken lights, leading to downtimes that sometimes last days or weeks. Conversely, streetlights already owned by Boulder automatically notify those in charge of maintenance when they go down, prompting faster repair.

“We’re very relieved to have the opportunity to move the entire system to be more consistent,” Elam said.

Boulder is not the first to go down this path. Golden has already bought its streetlights from Xcel, as has Greenwood Village. Elam said Erie is in conversations to do the same.

Lighting programs launch this month

For star gazers, the streetlight change is expected to provide greater opportunity to see suns burning millions of light years away. This is thanks to certain LED bulbs contributing less to light pollution, as they are more focused in the direction they’re pointed.

“If you look at our streetlights today, there’s a lot of not useful light,” Elam said.

If a streetlight is pointed down towards the street, you want that light on the street, not leaking up into the sky where it blotches out the stars and interferes with nocturnal animals’ internal clocks. Lights currently owned by Xcel leak significant light into the sky — likely why some areas of Boulder are as bad as any city for light pollution. That light pollution also messes with humans’ sleep schedules.

Even if you can’t see the streetlights, those streetlights are creating a “sky glow” that permeates Boulder. Thanks to this glow, Boulderites are part of the 80% of Americans who can’t see the Milky Way at night.

LEDs are not a perfect solution. The cheaper the LED, the more blue light they emit. And blue light messes with people’s circadian rhythm. It’s why sleep experts suggest activating a filter on your phone or TV after sunset and stopping screen use at least an hour before bed.

Yet by lowering the intensity of the light and increasing its yellow hue, despite a slight decrease in LED efficiency, those impacts can be minimized. That is one reason Boulder wants to own its own streetlights. Where Xcel has installed LEDs, they’ve gone much bluer than Boulder would like.

But how blue is the question, hence the pilot programs launching this month. By putting out a sampling of lighting temperatures for residents to assess, city staff are trying to determine the best LED for both major roadways in town and for residential areas.

City council approved the streetlight acquisition initiative in July of last year. The acquisition will be funded by the Community, Culture, Resilience and Safety (CCRS) Tax. Some $3.4 million has already been moved from the CCRS fund for the lights’ purchase. Another $3.8 will be moved for the conversion of lights to LED.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission is set to approve the acquisition of the streetlight
system before the end of September, with the deal finalizing before the end of 2023 or in very early 2024.

Tim Drugan is the climate and environment reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering wildfires, water and other climate-related issues for Boulder with a focus on explanatory and solutions journalism. He also is the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Tim grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from UNH with a degree in English/Journalism. Email:

Join the Conversation


    Have you ever walked out into the night and noticed that bright band of light that is our Milky Way Galaxy? I would like to see motion-detecting LED lighting of the cool intensity on all but the arterial streets. This would provide light only when needed (walking the dog at night) and also act as a security system converter thieves would have to contend with.
    Further, since the streetlights are obviously wired, I would also like to see the energy saved from LEDs (replacing sodium vapor can save 40-75%) used to provide ‘pay-as-you-go’ EV charging stations in high transportation locations. Meaning the city would not only avoid the cost of powering streetlights, they would also be reimbursed for public use of the grid.
    An obvious win-win-win!

  2. I am so glad to hear of this decision by the city. When we moved here 20 years ago, Boulder had just passed an ordinance requiring Dark Sky outdoor lighting fixtures. We immediately replaced all of ours and eagerly awaited the changes in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, 20 years on, none of our neighbors have complied. In the winter, we can block the light from our bedroom, but in the summer, we like to keep a window open for the cool night air and so cannot block the lights out.

  3. This is a great initiative. Maybe city council can just implement improvements like this without needing to seek input from everyone on every decision. Just make it so!

  4. I appreciate Steve providing this article from the Washington Post. I feel sure that our city leaders care about protecting the circadian rhythms of our people and animals as well as saving long-term energy costs. It sounds like the bright blue light emitted by LEDs can be mitigated by purchasing 2000 or 2700 Kelvin lights. With all of the knowledge today about the effects of blue light on melatonin and consequently our sleep and immune systems, I hope these things are carefully considered.

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