Santa Feans concerned about light pollution, particularly in residential areas, will have a little more time to convince city officials that a proposal to convert thousands of street lights could overly illuminate the area’s famous dark, starry nighttime skies.

The city proposes to take 5,500 city- and utility-owned lights, which register between 2,700 and 5,000 on the kelvin scale, and rework them to a more energy-efficient LED model with lights between 3,000 to 4,000 kelvins.

Dark-sky advocates have raised concerns about how that could alter Santa Fe’s nighttime look for the worse, so the city has extended the deadline for public comment on the issue from May 10 to May 24.

Officials are reconsidering the color and brightness, and may recommend LEDs that provide a warmer quality of light than those initially proposed. Some city officials have even set their sights on pursuing a Dark Sky City designation, which would officially mark Santa Fe as a place dedicated to protecting a starry night sky and animal species whose survival is threatened by the loss of natural darkness at night.

Los Angeles went through a similar debate in the 2000s and early 2010s and ultimately decided on a darker sky. Advocates in Santa Fe have presented before and after images of the City of Angels—from 2008 and 2012—and the difference is striking.

LEFT: Los Angeles in 2008, before the city transitioned to LEDs. RIGHT: Los Angeles 2012, after the transition.
LEFT: Los Angeles in 2008, before the city transitioned to LEDs. RIGHT: Los Angeles 2012, after the transition.

Mayor Alan Webber says the International Dark-Sky Association is advising the city on next steps.

“We want to not only get a good solution for these street lights, but we want to be a dark sky city,” Webber tells SFR. “What we have to do is not only address public lighting, but then we have to move forward and address lighting solutions for everybody.”

Down the road, that could include changing city policies regarding lighting on private property.

For now the city has a lot of work to do to make its own street lights fit the bill.

The City’s Plan

In April, the Santa Fe City Council passed a resolution approving a contract with Dalkia Energy Solutions and directing the Public Works Department to begin a public engagement process that includes demonstration sites where residents can experience the proposed lights.

The new LEDs are 60% more energy-efficient than the bulbs currently lighting city streets, and could save $550,000 a year in energy and maintenance costs. They have a dimming function and can be programmed to emit less light in the middle of the night, plus a detection system that would automatically alert Public Works if a light goes out.

The city initially proposed to install lights with a 4,000-kelvin rating for major roadways and a 3,000-kelvin rating for residential streets. Public Works Director Regina Wheeler says these ratings are considered best practice by state agencies and are used by cities across the country. However, Santa Fe dropped those numbers to 3,000K and 2,700K in response to public feedback.

“The team is in the learning and evaluating options mode, that’s what this phase is all about,” Wheeler tells SFR, adding the city is exploring options for fixtures to reduce glare and expects to install some at the demonstration sites in the coming weeks.

Wheeler says the clamor for darker night skies might represent the loudest Santa Fe residents rather than the majority, and she’s spoken to many people whose top priority is safety. For example, she says she spoke to a mother of a young Black man who felt that brighter lighting would help in deterring and documenting police brutality.

“There are quite a few people out there who think, ‘the brighter, the better,’” says Wheeler.

On May 26, the Public Works Department is scheduled to present its final proposal to the City Council. Wheeler tells SFR she expects the City Council to schedule a vote sometime soon after.

Residents can submit public comments at the Dalkia project webpage, santafe.dalkiasolutions.com, or email SantaFeLED@dalkiasolutions.com.

Why Kelvins are a Big Deal

Kelvins measure the color of a light, not its brightness. The higher the kelvin rating, the bluer the light is on the color spectrum and the cooler and whiter it appears. The lower the kelvin rating, the further the light falls toward yellow, orange and red.

While cooler light might appear brighter than warm light, both warm and cool light can be bright enough to safely illuminate city streets, says Sam Finn, a retired astrophysicist and dark sky advocate who helped set up nightskysantafe.org to keep residents informed about the potential issues with the streetlight conversion project.

“My vision for Santa Fe is really all about that candlelight quality,” says Finn. “This kind of lighting can be done in such a way that still prioritizes safety.”

He notes the two organizations that set national standards for street lighting—the Illuminating Engineering Society and the American National Standards Institute—have found light color has no impact on the safety of drivers or pedestrians. The standards require lighting to meet performance metrics, but not specific kelvin ratings. However, Wheeler tells SFR lower kelvin ratings make it harder to meet brightness requirements. For example, lights might need to be spaced closer together at the low kelvin ratings proposed by some advocates to still meet safety standards.

Finn says bluer light can increase light pollution because it is more likely to bounce off of air molecules and “scatter.” This can have a negative impact on birds and other migratory species that navigate by night, and can disrupt the reproductive patterns of many animals. It also limits our ability to see the stars.

The International Dark Sky Association recommends cities stick to a kelvin rating of 2,200 for most city street lights. City councilors recently visited the parking lot of The Santa Fe New Mexican printing facility, which is the only place in the city lit by LEDs with a 2,200 kelvin rating.

Wheeler says the New Mexico Department of Transportation requires lights on state-owned roadways Highway 599 and St. Francis Drive to be at least 4,000 kelvin.

She says the city is considering postponing the installation of new lighting on those roads until NMDOT releases new standards that will likely include lower kelvin ratings.