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Boston plans to replace historic gas lamps with LEDs in effort to reduce carbon emissions

An electric street light was showcased to community members at the corner of Church Street and Shawmut Street during a gas-to-electric retrofit public meeting in Boston on Monday.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

Nearly four centuries old, Boston likes to flaunt its Colonial charms.

Among the legacies of the city’s venerable age, like tricorn hats and narrow cobblestone streets, are 2,800 gas street lights that flicker day and night through ornate lamps from the Back Bay to Charlestown.

But their nostalgic appeal has faded in a time when burning fossil fuels is causing the planet to warm at a dangerous rate, and Mayor Michelle Wu is seeking to eliminate as much of the city’s carbon emissions as soon as possible.

In a first step toward replacing the gas lamps, city officials last week installed Boston’s first faux version, which simulates a flame with highly energy-efficient LED lights.

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“The planet is facing a climate emergency, and the only way to address that is to transition off fossil fuels,” said Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the chief of streets. “We want to do our part to replace our terribly inefficient gas lighting with something that’s compatible with a sustainable climate.”

He added: “Historic preservation is important to Boston, but it has to be compatible with protecting the future of the planet.”

The city’s gas street lamps are responsible for spewing nearly 5,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases every year, or 3.4 percent of the annual carbon emissions produced by city operations, Franklin-Hodge said. That doesn’t include the significant amount of methane — among the most potent of greenhouse gases — that the lamps leak from punctures in the aging network of gas pipes.

The new lamp, designed to look nearly identical to the existing street lights, was installed in Bay Village, a historic enclave near downtown, where several gas lamps had to be temporarily removed for a construction project.

So far, the faux gas lamp has received mixed reviews.

“At this point, we’re keeping an open mind,” said Tom Perkins, president of the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, whose group planned to meet Monday night with neighbors and members of the neighborhood’s historic district commission to hear any concerns. “We’re looking closely at the prototype.”

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He wasn’t happy with the reddish quality of the LEDs, and it seems to shine a bit too brightly, compared with the muted white light of a gas flame. And although Perkins described the lamps as “a bit squat,” he was glad they didn’t look turnpike lights.

His main concern was that Bay Village doesn’t end up being “an orphan,” the only neighborhood stuck with faux gas lights, if the historic lamps continue to burn in more politically powerful neighborhoods.

Perkins’s neighbor, Anne Kilguss, a member of the Bay Village Historic District Commission, echoed his concerns.

“I will withhold my vote to approve this until the city comes up with a comprehensive plan for all neighborhoods,” she said. “The city hasn’t done a good job with the process so far. I hope that changes.”

She and others were concerned that the city hasn’t done more to seek input from residents.

Pedestrians walked under a pair of gas streetlights in the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Boston.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

In Beacon Hill, where residents spent years fighting efforts to install concrete handicapped-accessible ramps because of their appearance, neighborhood officials have already sent signals that they’re unhappy with the plan.

In a letter sent to officials in January, Rob Whitney, chair of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, said his group had “grave concerns” about the city’s plans and its lack of community outreach, noting that his neighborhood has more than 1,000 gas lamps.

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“There has been absolutely no public community discussion or review whatsoever of the city of Boston’s Street Lighting Division[’s] one-sided and coercive decision to replace the historic gas street lamps,” Whitney wrote.

Until there’s been a “full and robust community review process,” he said, his group intends to oppose the city’s plans.

Whitney did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Other neighborhood groups suggested they were more open to the new lamps.

Over the weekend, Sue Prindle, chair of the architecture committee Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, went to Bay Village to inspect the faux gas lamp.

“I think the color is a little off and the intensity is a little high, but it’s very close to what we have now,” she said.

Prindle noted that most of the city’s gas lamps are modern replicas of the originals, many of them installed in the 1960s.

“I favor this,” she said. “I think there’s certainly a reason to go electric, given the environmental concerns.”

Her colleague, Elliott Laffer, chair of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, called the city’s plan “basically a good idea.”

“Having lights that burn natural gas 24 hours a day doesn’t seem like the kind of thing the city should have in a world in which the climate is changing,” he said.

Given that faux gas lamps look very much like the existing lamps, he said: “Why would anyone oppose this, unless they had a grand attachment to gas?”

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City officials also noted that there would be significant savings by using LEDs.

The city now pays nearly $1 million a year to cover its gas bill for running the street lamps, they said. In addition, Boston spends about $200,000 a year to maintain them.

The electric bill for the LED street lamps, they estimate, would be about one-tenth the cost of operating gas lamps. Moreover, the old lights require maintenance on average every two years, while LED lights can go as long as 10 years without requiring service, they said.

Still, they would be about five times more expensive to install than the typical street light, costing about $5,000 each for the whole lamp. And some neighborhood officials said they had doubts about the city’s cost estimates for the new lights.

In a statement, Wu said the city is trying to strike a balance between maintaining its unique charms and dealing with its responsibility to address climate change.

“In reimagining our city’s historic streetlights, we have an opportunity to take an important step toward becoming a green new city, while preserving the historical integrity that shapes Boston’s character,” she said.

Franklin-Hodge, her chief of streets, noted that 85 percent of all city street lights now use LEDs. He said that it is time for the city to start converting the gas lamps as well, but that it is just at the beginning of the process and plans far more conversations with neighborhood groups and historic commissions.

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“We are confident that these discussions will lead us toward a path that allows us to preserve the historic character of our gas-lit neighborhoods, while addressing the urgent need to reduce our carbon footprint,” he said. “We can and must do both.”


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.