Santiago de Compostela y su iluminación

How the light in a city like Santiago de Compostela is transformed

22 of November of 2023

Lighting gives us a certain power to modify cities and make them more welcoming, pleasant, and sustainable. It also gives us the power to get them moving at a calm, cheerful pace, thereby inviting us to enjoy the night. This is precisely what we want to achieve with our lighting project in Santiago de Compostela.

This project involves changing out about 30,000 lights and adapting them with a much more efficient technology. Sodium vapor bulbs, which are outdated and polluting, will be a thing of the past. However, defining details of the city’s personality will live on in the Compostelan streetlight, and the project aspires to play with light in a way that will, so to speak, highlight iconic buildings like the cathedral.

A step towards sustainability

When I started working as a manager in Santiago de Compostela’s Public Lighting Maintenance Service more than two decades ago, there was hardly any talk of energy efficiency. However, over time, people started to think more and more about the importance of saving energy and money and not depending on fossil fuels.

Today, we have to update lighting services for cities to make them more sustainable. This can have enormous benefits: it is estimated that, with the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions we’d save with lighting and energy efficiency in buildings, we could light up the Eiffel Tower for 2,500 years, take 320 trips around the world in an Airbus 380, or provide heating and air conditioning for more than 180,000 families for a year.

Santiago de Compostela is one of the cities leading the way in this transition. The orange lights that now illuminate much of the city are sodium vapor bulbs, an old technology that uses about 250 watts of power.

Over the next few years, we will renovate a total of 30,000 streetlights to install LED lights, which likely won’t exceed 50 watts. These will offer an approximate savings of 70% in energy consumed, as well as uniform lighting. The old streetlights will be recycled in compliance with legislation on waste management.

But the improvement isn’t limited to the urban area. A significant portion of our project is implementing 10,000 lights with 5G technology in rural areas. With this technology, we can know the status of each streetlight, how much energy it’s consuming, and even turn it on and off as we wish.

This system can greatly reduce management and maintenance steps. Santiago, like so many other cities in northern Spain, has a highly dispersed population. Currently, operators traveling to remote areas generate considerable expenses that can be reduced if many procedures can be done remotely.

Proximity and history: challenges and benefits of lighting Santiago

Over these years, many things have changed, but others have essentially remained the same. Santiago de Compostela is still a welcoming city that receives pilgrims and tourists, and it’s a cheerful and lively university center. Santiago’s historic center has also remained intact over hundreds of years, and this is something we want to contribute to through lighting.

One of the elements that has remained unchanged in the historical part of the city is a kind of light called the Compostelan streetlight. It was originally lit with gas, then with fluorescent bulbs and later mercury. Today, sodium vapor lamps are used. Since the 1920s, it has survived all these technologies, and in the future, it will be lit with LEDs. However, its external appearance will remain the same.

Our goal is for all the products used in this project (from lights to frames and all other materials) to come from local manufacturers. In other words, we want this to be a zero-kilometer project. This guarantees that we are buying quality products, gives us flexibility, and also lets us reduce the costs and environmental impact of transportation. In addition, by investing the money in the city itself, we are promoting local trade and keeping profits here, closing the economic circle.

Another advantage of this project is that it allows us to contribute to other aspects of the city, such as cleaning and maintenance. We’re developing a system for removing lichens from historical buildings by using light: a combination of LED colors inhibits the growth of this organism, which in turn prevents it from expanding. This reduces the cost of cleaning granite facades, which is quite expensive. In addition, this color combination is good for wildlife and doesn’t affect insect behavior.

Walks by city lights

One of the important parts of the communication plan we’ve developed is our night-time walk with residents. This involves getting residents together to take a walk, where we point out details that they’ve surely never noticed before. Why is this streetlight here? What effects does this other one have here?

Behind each streetlight and its operation is a technological development. A project, planning, and a set of tasks. Explaining what we’re changing to residents, along with how and why we’re doing so and what impact each action will have, helps us a lot in our day-to-day work.

Light transforms the city, and it can transform it for the better. It can make a city prettier and more pleasant, and even welcome us out for an evening stroll. In Santiago, of course, the cathedral’s lighting has to stand out above all others. All the lighting in the Plaza del Obradoiro was designed to put the cathedral at center stage. What better example than this to show how light can transform the night and the image of a city.

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