Key Points

Santa Fe’s Department of Public Works, together with their contractor, Dalkia Energy Solutions, has been urging the city to buy and install more than five thousand Autobahn series streetlights manufactured by American Electric Lighting (AEL).

For at least the past 8 months AEL Autobahn series streetlights – the same ones being urged upon Santa Fe by Dalkia and the Department of Public Works – have been failing in large numbers throughout the United States.  

The nationwide failure of AEL manufactured LED Streetlights was taking place while Public Works was in its first discussions with Dalkia. The lights were failing in large numbers when the Public Works urged the Governing Body to contract with Dalkia and install the AEL Autobahn lights in February. They were continuing to fail when, at the end of May, the Department of Public Works, Dalkia, and the AEL representatives all assured the Governing Body that these AEL luminaires were the only products, made by any lighting manufacturer, that met the city’s (undefined) needs.

These AEL lights are still failing nationwide.

Dalkia has a contract with Santa Fe, one purpose of which is to advise the city on its lighting needs and how best to fulfill them.

Dalkia has a commercial relationship with AEL, whose purpose is to promote AEL products, which it did not disclose to the city at the time it was making its lighting recommendation. 

Dalkia also did not inform the city of the serious, on-going failures of the luminaires it was urging upon the city. 

Dalkia does not appear to be providing the city with the advice it needs and the Department of Public Works does not appear to be capable of protecting the city’s interest in safe and reliable lighting. 

Failure of AEL manufactured LED Streetlights

How LED Streetlights “Work”

Most LED streetlight luminaires are based on a single type of LED that emits a pure blue (really, blue-violet, or indigo) light. This is not blue-tinged light, or blue-white light, but an intensely blue-violet light. To make a whiter light, the blue light is partially hidden from view by coating the LED lens with a combination of phosphors: chemical substances that absorbs some of the blue light and re-emits it in the red, or orange, or yellow part of the spectrum. By varying the combination of phosphors and thickness, the LED+phosphor assembly can be adjusted to produce light that appears to the eye as blue-white, or white, or warm-white, or even amber. 

This use of phosphors is not something new introduced for the purpose of LED street lighting. Phosphors provide most of the light produced by fluorescent lamps. Phosphors are also used to improve the color balance of metal halide and high-pressure sodium streetlights. Back in the day when CRTs (cathode-ray tubes) were used for television displays, phosphors were responsible for converting the high-energy electron beams to white light (in black & white televisions) or to red, green, & blue light (for color television).

How Are the AEL Lights FailING? 

The failure of the AEL streetlights is a failure of the phosphors. The failure of the phosphors expose the intrinsically indigo LEDs, leading to an intense blue-violet lighting of the streets of the cities where these lights have been installed.  

Phosphors cannot be repaired or replaced. When the phosphor goes, the entire light assembly must be replaced.

Properly manufactured LED streetlights last for one to two decades.  When LED streetlights fail it is usually the driving electronics – not the LEDs and not the phosphors – that fail. Phosphors don’t ordinarily fail. Over the course of a decade or more the phosphors used in an LED streetlight may shift slightly in the color of light that they emit; however, they don’t just fail. 

The AEL streetlights that are failing were all installed after 2017.

Where Are the AEL Streetlights Failing? 

Here’s an incomplete list of a dozen cities that are having to deal with the failure of the AEL lights, with links to news articles or city documents describing the problem:

As mentioned, this is an incomplete list: it is the result of less than an hour’s googling after I was alerted to the problem. 

Observations

The failure of AEL manufactured streetlights is occurring at a rate far in excess of anything that is considered “normal”.

The lights that have been reported to have failed were installed as recently as 2019. Apparently none were installed earlier than 2017; so, all the failures have taken place within the first 1-2 years of installation. LED streetlights are ordinarily expected to last 15 years or longer. 

AEL says that it knows what the problem is and has fixed it in its manufacturing process. AEL has not, however, issued a “recall”, nor is it pro-actively contacting cities or utility companies it has supplied with the faulty lighting, nor is it pro-actively replacing the defective lights before they fail. It seems instead that AEL is comfortable letting the lights fail in-place – with all the associated public safety and inconvenience hazards – and then replacing those that failed.

This may serve AEL’s bottom-line profit. It does not, however, serve its customers or the public safety. While AEL may cover the replacement lights under its warranty, it may not cover the labor involved in replacing the lights themselves: i.e., the time and expense involved by city or utility company workers or contractors who have to take a bucket-truck out to remove the failed equipment and replace it with new equipment. And, of course, it doesn’t cover the time of city or utility company personnel who must identify and document the problem, contact AEL, negotiate a warranty claim, and then wait for AEL to provide replacement lights. 

Dalkia has a business relationship with Acuity, AEL’s parent company, to promote AEL products. Dalkia also has a contract with the city of Santa Fe, to advise the city on its street lighting needs and the lighting that will best serve those needs. This is a classic example of a conflict of interest, which should have been declared by Dalkia and – at the very least – managed by the Santa Fe’s Department of Public Works. Even in the absence of a declaration by Dalkia – the responsible thing to do – it should have been found by Public Works in the course of ordinary due diligence. The conflict was not discovered by Public works. It was also not declared by Dalkia: instead, Dalkia hid the conflict and misrepresented itself to the Governing Body as “independent” and “agnostic” when it comes to lighting or lighting vendors.   

Even when Dalkia’s clear conflict of interest was inadvertently discovered during the Governing Body’s May 26 meeting, there is no evidence that any of the recommendations made by Dalkia were re-examined, in light of that conflict, by the Department of Public Works or the Governing Body. 

Santa Fe has engaged with Dalkia to do several different things: to decide upon how the city streets will be lighted, to decide upon the streetlight products that will do that lighting, to procure (at a profit) those lights, to install the lights, and to operate and maintain the lights. In a previous report we have shown that Dalkia has no expertise in urban lighting design or installation. It now appears that they cannot be trusted to identify or procure the lighting products that best meet the city’s interests. 

Apparently the Department of Public Works did not vet Dalkia for its qualifications for the job of designing or installing Santa Fe’s new lighting. Neither, apparently, did it vet Dalkia for conflicts of interests when Public Works Director Wheeler wrote “[Dalkia] not associated with any lighting vendor.” Nor – as we see here – does it appear to have vetted Dalkia’s recommendation of AEL lighting for reliability. One can’t help but wonder what else Public Works has missed, or is missing, to the city’s detriment. 

What Can I do?

Ask the mayor and your councilors to look into the reliability of the AEL brand lighting being pressed upon it before proceeding to accept the recommendation of Dalkia and the Department of Public Works. Be clear that you expect the councilors to inquire directly with some of the affected municipalities or energy companies that have been dealing with the problem: i.e., not rely on AEL’s assurances. Ask also that they not rely upon Dalkia’s assurance: its business interest with AEL runs counter to the Santa Fe’s interest in safe and reliable lighting for the city streets. 

Ask the mayor and councilors to demand that Dalkia and Public Works produce evidence to back their claim that only the AEL lighting fixtures can meet the city’s needs: i.e., a list of luminaire vendors that they asked to recommend products that might be used in Santa Fe, the specifications they provided the vendors when they asked for products that would meet Santa Fe’s needs, and the detailed reasons they rejected those products as not suitable for use in Santa Fe. 

Ask the mayor and councilors what they think about the apparent conflict of interest involved in Dalkia promoting to the city AEL fixtures, when Dalkia had an undisclosed business relationship with AEL to do just that:

Do the mayor and the councilors think the conflict should have been revealed?

Are the mayor and the councilors comfortable that Dalkia has the city’s best interests at heart?

In the face of the conflict of interest, what are the mayor and the councilors doing to protect the interests of the city and its residents?

Express you expectation that the mayor and your councilors reply to you!

Express your concerns in a letter to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Write the Santa Fe New Mexican News Content Editor, Ms. Cynthia Miller, and ask that the New Mexican look into and report on this multi-million dollar project carefully: they have resources and investigative experience that we don’t. It is news in the dozen+ cities listed above, and the Mayor and Public Works Director want to install the same lights here: why shouldn’t this be news in Santa Fe?

Do these things even if you already have written, or phoned, or spoken: responsible government often requires repeating yourself until you are heard. 

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Drop me a line and let me know if you do any of these things. And, if you’re comfortable, share with me what you wrote, and anything you get back in return. 

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