Streetlight Switch Approved

City Council revised plan to lower kelvins, but says conversion to LED will save money and energy while making streets brighter and skies darker

The Santa Fe City Council voted unanimously Wednesday night to approve a revised plan to convert city street lights from old fashioned bulbs to high-efficiency LEDs.

The vote came after hours of debate about an amendment proposed by Councilor Mike Garcia that would have temporarily halted the project and required the city to hire an independent lighting engineer to review potential merits or problems of installing lights with a slightly lower color temperature—measured in kelvins—than those in the revised plan.

Garcia’s amendment was defeated in a 7-2 vote, with Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler voting in favor.

The Public Works Department expects the conversion to cut energy use by 60% and bring down the total brightness of city streetlights, measured in lumens, by 50%. According to Public Works Director Regina Wheeler, the new lights will save 3 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year—or the equivalent of taking 10,100 cars off the road.

“The question is not what’s the rush, the question is what’s the case for further delay?... We have a chance to speak out about climate change and do something about global warming right here, right now,” said Mayor Alan Webber toward the end of the evening, urging approval of the plan to move forward with the installation of the lights.

The switch will cost the city $2.75 million and is part of a $17.2 million project to install energy efficiency upgrades across all government operations as part of the effort to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. In addition to replacing streetlights, the city also plans to install 2.75 megawatts of solar, replace indoor lighting in city buildings with LEDs, and retrofit water fixtures to save an estimated 2 million gallons a year.

The city plans to pay for the upgrade to its streetlights with the savings from switching to more efficient light fixtures. The first debt payment is due by the end of the year.

On its face, the conversion seems like something Santa Fe’s environmentally conscious populus would applaud. Yet, it has drawn substantial criticism from local dark sky advocates who repeatedly called for the city to install lights with lower kelvin levels than those initially proposed. In recent weeks some have also raised concerns about how city staff engaged in the process of seeking a contract with Dalkia Energy Solutions to install and maintain the lights.

Initially, the Public Works Department proposed replacing existing streetlights with high-efficiency LEDs with a rating of 3,000 Kelvins for residential streets and 4,000 Kelvins for large city streets and major roadways.

Dark sky advocates immediately raised concerns that these lights would be too high on the kelvin scale and would cause excessive light pollution that could jeopardize Santa Fe’s exceptional views of the starry night sky.

The City Council approved a contract with Dalkia Energy Solutions for the conversion project at a Feb. 24 meeting, while simultaneously hitting pause on the installation of the lights until after the close of a three-month public engagement process to gather more input on specifications such as brightness, color and glare.

Public Works changed its recommendations in response to public feedback to 2,700 kelvins for residential streetlights and 3,000 kelvins for larger roads. Mayor Alan Webber also announced his intention to pursue a dark sky designation.

In a presentation Wednesday night, the International Dark Sky Association’s Executive Director Ruskin Hartley offered support for the city’s project, which falls within the 3,000-kelvin limit recommended by the organization.

However, it is still unclear if the proposal will help Santa Fe achieve official designation as a Dark Sky Community.

That’s because the specific kelvin ratings aren’t the only thing that impacts the ultimate “skyglow” caused by city lights, said Hartley.

He brought up two cities that both implemented similar LED conversion plans in an effort to conserve energy and reduce the impact on night skies to illustrate his point.

In Tucson, Arizona, a transition to 3,000-kelvin LED street lights across the city led to an 8% reduction in sky glow as well as energy savings. In contrast, Chelan, Washington transitioned to a combination of 3,000 and 4,000 kelvin lights that reduced the city’s total light output—measured in lumens—by 50%. Yet overall sky glow went up by nearly 60%. At the end of the day, Chelan’s project resulted in street lighting that was worse for a dark sky.

The difference, said Hartley, was in all the other details that went into the plan, such as dimming capacities, blue light shielding fixtures, distance between lights, number of lights installed, etc.

“The takeaway should not be that if you put a 3,000 system you will necessarily reduce sky glow, or that if you put in some 4,000 kelvin lights then you will increase it, the takeaway is that there are different outcomes depending on how you mix these variables,” Hartley told councilors, advising Santa Fe to consider hiring an independent lighting engineer to help figure out the details.

This request was echoed by at least half of the two dozen people who spoke up in the public comments during the public hearing on the proposal.

“I am baffled about why the need for an independent unbiased review of the LED retrofit design has met such resistance,” said Peter Lipscomb, a local astronomer and member of the citizen working group for the LED streetlights project.

Another man, Albert Schultz, said he did not feel that special lenses and shields added to LED streetlights at various demonstration sites across the city adequately reduced glare.

Other speakers expressed a different point of view.

“Lighting after midnight could be beneficial in some neighborhoods where people break into cars parked in front of their houses,” said District 4 resident Miguel Gabaldon.

Madeline Carey, another member of the streetlight steering committee, said she did not feel there had been enough representation of the public safety aspect of the issue from the Police Department, telling councilors, “I feel that we were a little hyper-focused on the dark sky.”

After much debate over Garcia’s amendment to pause the project and hire an independent lighting engineer to consult on the process, Webber supported the idea of hiring a consultant to help determine whether dark sky goals were being met.

“I think there is a role for an additional consultant particularly as it relates to sky glow…  will continue to advocate for that additional resource to further flesh out the benefits of this project, " he said.

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