Some cities try going 'green' with blackouts

On Saturday evening, it's "Lights out San Francisco," where people will voluntary turn off lights for an hour. The aim is to raise awareness of light pollution and the energy wasted by lights left on.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's lights out come 8 p.m. Saturday for the TransAmerica pyramid, the Golden Gate Bridge, and businesses and dwellings across San Francisco.

Citizens plan to shut off nonessential lighting for an hour in the name of conservation – and community. Restaurants will serve dinner by candlelight, astronomy buffs will be out with their scopes, and musicians will rock out on power from a biodiesel bus.

If participants are expecting a total blackout or a quick fix for global warming, they might have to settle instead for a free energy-efficient light bulb and an event T-shirt that reads: "Good things happen in the dark."

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"Our expectations in terms of actual energy savings are not as high as our expectation in terms of just communicating how easy it is to do something very simple," says Nathan Tyler, who's bringing the idea to San Francisco and Los Angeles – and eventually nationwide.

For anyone who has wondered about the wastefulness of the bright lights in big cities, it turns out that some simple fixes do work. US skylines, particularly in California, have become "greener" in recent years with the help of new technologies, tighter regulations, and simple changes in behavior.

"If you look at the San Francisco skyline at night, it's a whole lot darker than it used to be," says Ken Cleveland, director of government public affairs for the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) here. "Some people in the past would have lighting on their buildings at night as part of their signature, [but] times are changing."

Many buildings now have installed motion sensors to shut lights off automatically, often with the help of money paid into a fund by electricity customers.

Other creative ideas are coming, too:

•In a move last month that could spread nationally, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) will now allow high-rise owners to meter each tenant's electricity usage and penalize energy hogs, rather than rely on one bill for an entire building.

•BOMA plans to roll out a "green lease" program early next year that would commit tenants to recycle, conserve water, avoid toxin-emitting furniture, and shut off unused lights and computers.

•San Francisco lawmakers will vote in coming months on a measure to ban the use of older, energy-wasting fluorescent tubes in the downtown commercial district.

California has been a pioneer in energy efficiency, particularly with its stringent building standards. Those regulations, along with appliance-efficiency standards, have saved more than $56 billion in energy costs since their inception in 1978, according to the California Energy Commission. Californians now use less energy per capita than residents of any other state.

But a desire to do more is growing, both among businesses facing rising energy costs and policymakers responding to public concerns about global warming. A new poll from Yale University found that 62 percent of Americans believe life on earth faces major disruptions from climate change unless immediate and drastic action is taken.

Mr. Tyler hopes the Lights Out event will show that small, individual efforts can be collectively powerful and bring people together. He first stumbled on a similar event while traveling in Sydney, Australia. The one-hour event there cut out the release of 25 tons of carbon dioxide, comparable to taking 49,000 cars off the road for an hour.

"I was having dinner with my friend in the harbor there, and they started handing out candles, and we had this amazing candlelit dinner," he says. "It occurred to me, what a great mechanism to get people involved ...to save energy."

He put up a basic announcement on the Internet in April, and the idea spread fast. San Francisco's City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, PG&E, and three corporate sponsors stepped up to help his staff of five.

Now, people are e-mailing from around the country wanting to help, prompting Tyler to move more quickly on plans for a nationwide Lights Out on March 29. Los Angeles city officials couldn't wait, and the city will be taking part on Saturday.

The San Francisco police say they aren't planning any special street presence despite snickers from some corners that darkened downtowns could be a crime magnet. Streetlights and other essential lights won't be turned off Saturday.

There's a danger that participants might get disappointed, notes Aaron Israel with the Bay Area chapter of the Sierra Club. "We applaud any efforts like [this] to be creative about our energy challenges," he says, but notes that turning off lights for an hour is "not a sustainable habit."

The Sierra Club is sponsoring its own climate challenge competition to see which households can reduce their electric bills the most in 30 days.

Still, the Lights Out event has put a twinkle in the eye of amateur astronomers, who expect they will be able to see the Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye.

"You should be able to see the Milky Way – that in itself is just an incredible event from Lands End [in the city]," says Kenneth Frank with the Astronomical Association of Northern California. "I had heard in New York when they had the power outage, a lot of people looked up and [saw the Milky Way and] called the police department not understanding what they were seeing."

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