Santa Rosa turns darkened streetlights back on

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In the dark days of Santa Rosa’s budget crisis, one of the most visible signs of the city’s financial challenges was its decision to turn off thousands of the city’s streetlights.

Between 2009 and 2013, the city either switched off or limited the run time of approximately 4,700 streetlights throughout Santa Rosa, nearly a third of the 15,500 in the city.

It was a controversial program, one that, despite saving the city more than $300,000 per year, was scaled back from its original goal of darkening 10,000 lights following pressure from residents and council members concerned about safety issues.

Now that the city’s budget picture has brightened significantly, it has committed to turn back on all 3,400 lights that were switched off and all 1,300 lights that were placed on timers, which automatically turned the lights off between midnight and 5:30 a.m.

The goal is to have all those lights back on by June 2016, an aggressive target that the City Council funded with an additional $600,000 from a mid-year budget surplus.

“I’m pleased that we’re able to restore one of our core services, which I consider the lighting of our streets to be,” Mayor John Sawyer said.

Residents seemed pleased with the move.

Diana Fleming, who lives on Rusty Drive off Fulton Road, watched a city worker install a new high-efficiency LED fixture in front of her house Monday.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Fleming said as she swept the curb. “It makes a big difference.”

When the city was faced with major budget shortfalls after the economy cratered in 2008, the public works department took two approaches to reduce its power bills.

One was to turn off streetlamps by removing the fuses or reducing their usage with timers, said Jason Nutt, the city’s new director of Transportation and Public Works.

The other was to upgrade the fixtures to more energy-efficient bulbs. That effort took more time, because of a lack of funds and the high cost of the latest lighting technologies, Nutt said.

The cost of LED bulbs has come down dramatically, however, from $750 per bulb in 2008 to between $150 and $250 per head today, he said.

In the intervening years, the city opted for another efficient technology, called induction lighting similar to florescent lights, for its major intersections.

But the durability of LED technology combined with the plunging cost has allowed the city to accelerate its transition from the high-pressure sodium bulbs to LEDs.

So instead of just turning the old bulbs back on or removing the timers, city crews will be upgrading the bulbs to LEDs at the same time, Nutt said.

Much of cost of such work is in the labor, so if the city is going to take the time to send an electrician up in a bucket to work on a light, it might as well do the LED upgrade at the same time, Nutt said.

“It just makes sense to touch everything once,” he said.

The city has just finished a major push to upgrade about 2,500 LED lights in the downtown, Proctor Terrace, Burbank Gardens, Cherry Street, St. Rose and Junior College neighborhoods.

Those were geographic-based efforts where crews went down residential streets and replaced all the old lights with LEDs. That effort will continue. When combined with the 1,100 induction lights at intersections, that means the city has upgraded 3,600 streetlights, more than a quarter, to high-efficiency bulbs.

In July, the $600,000 boost from the city will allow crews to begin a parallel project to “re-energize” all intentionally darkened lights by replacing the old heads with LEDs. This will result in something of a “shotgun” approach, with crews skipping around the city to replace those lights where needed.

That means many residential streets will have two kinds of lighting for a period: the yellowish high-pressure sodium bulbs and a smattering of LED bulbs where lights had been switched off.

The exception is areas with decorative streetlights, which don’t yet have cost-effective LED models, Nutt said. Those will simply be turned back on for now.

By 2020, all of the city’s streetlights should be high-efficiency.

Turning on all those additional lights over the next 13 months will come with a higher energy cost in the first year, Nutt said. But because the bulbs are more efficient, and because the geographic upgrades will continue, energy costs will be lower than they are today within the first couple years of the 5-year project, and pay for themselves over the life of the project.

“This is a good long-term strategy,” Nutt said.

While he’s happy to be turning the lights back on and saving money long-term, Sawyer acknowledged that not everyone may be pleased, himself included, by the color of the new lights, which are significantly whiter on the color spectrum than the old ones.

A “color rendering index” produced by the city explains that current high-pressure sodium bulbs emit a yellowish orange glow at 2,220 Kelvins. The new LED lights emit 4,000 Kelvins, while the induction light at intersections are the whitest, emitting 5,000 Kelvins.

While some may view the new lights as “obnoxious,” especially by people like Sawyer who love the dark night sky, over time, he predicted, people will get used to them. He also stressed what a good investment they are.

“This is exactly the kind of thing that one-time money should be used for,” Sawyer said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@press democrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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