New Mexico’s night skies soothe the souls of all who live beneath them, but they offer more than serenity — human beings and all of nature need the dark of night.
Overly bright lights in the darkness are as much a pollutant as are belching smokestacks or chemicals spilling into streams. The health consequences for humans, animals and plants because of too much artificial brightness at night can be severe.
New Mexico recognized this early, passing groundbreaking night sky protections back in 1999, with cities such as Santa Fe following with ordinances to reduce surplus glare.
Now, Santa Fe is moving ahead with a much-needed and anticipated conversion of old-fashioned low-pressure sodium streetlights to LEDs. Burned-out fixtures will be replaced. What grumpy stargazers refer to as “glare bombs” will give way to streetlights that shine onto roadways and sidewalks, not up into the sky.
Even better for frustrated residents, there’s a contract with the company installing the lights for maintenance — no more calling the city, to be told the lights are owned by Public Service Company of New Mexico or vice versa. It should be a one-stop shop.
Some 5,500 high-pressure sodium lights will be replaced with LEDs over six months, reducing electricity use by 60 percent. It’s a $2.75 million project set to start in the spring. Dalkia Energy Solutions will install the lights and then be paid $179,074 annually for maintenance.
However, as well-intended and needed as the project is, city leaders should reconsider the kind of lights the contractor proposes to install.
Right now, plans are for LEDs that will emit quite a bit of blue light. Short-wavelength blue light scatters and lights up the sky (think of how the sky is blue in the daytime). Warmer light with longer wavelengths, toward the yellow and red end of the spectrum, causes less scatter and less light pollution.
Dark skies advocates — and in New Mexico there are many — believe the amount of blue light these new fixtures will emit is too much. Blue light is bad for seeing the stars.
They point to cities such as Flagstaff, Ariz., which successfully switched low-pressure sodium bulbs to narrow-band amber LEDs, a type of fixture that emits warmer colors from the beginning. These fixtures do a good job of illuminating the streets to make them safe at night. They just emit less blue light that scatters up into the sky.
These narrow-band amber lights compare well to the low-pressure sodium bulbs — now extinct — that Flagstaff had used for years to keep night glare at a minimum. It was no aesthetic choice there; the Navy runs one of two observatories nearby, and warned the city it could not continue its mission with increasing night glare.
Santa Fe needs the warmer amber light as well.
On Wednesday, the city will consider the contract to replace the streetlights.
As anxious as we are for this project to proceed, we hope councilors will ask plenty of questions — they’re good at that, after all. Consult the dark skies experts; this is a topic about which they are better informed than city staff.
That’s not a bad thing or an admission of weakness. We are fortunate in Santa Fe to have private citizens who are experts on specific topics, while staffers must have knowledge on a variety of things.
Use the expertise and also look at what cities more like us — Flagstaff being a prime example — are doing, and don’t be afraid to make changes.
Yes, LEDs are an improvement over current streetlights because they use less energy and last longer. New fixtures will allow light to be directed downward, reducing the amount of stray glaring into people’s windows at night. We especially appreciate the energy savings.
Reduce stray artificial light at night, cut down on energy bills and keep streets safe — Santa Fe can do all three and should.