By Ray Stern
A few weeks ago, people all over the world were asked to save energy by shutting off their lights on a Saturday evening for at least one hour.
The Washington D.C.-based environmental group that put on Earth Hour, as it was called, did a masterful job of promoting the March 29 event. Phoenix was one of several cities worldwide that participated on an official level, switching off lights at several municipal buildings.
Hitting the lights is one of the most basic forms of conservation a person could practice, and I can still hear my father not-so-gently reminding me to do so every time I leave a room.
But as it turns out, it’s not so simple to darken big office buildings.
In Phoenix, the extra labor required to provide the hour of semi-darkness at City Hall and other municipal buildings cost taxpayers $3,000.
That’s right: Phoenix paid a few grand just to switch its own lights off for an hour.
Some of its lights, that is – the “non-essential” ones left on most other times.
As far as I can figure, that’s far more than the city could have possibly saved in electricity costs for that hour.
It’s a good bet that other government and business entities lost money on Earth Hour, too.
Cox Communications, for example, which participated by turning off some lights at 17 of its buildings, claims it incurred no expense for the event. However, the electrical contractor hired by the company donated the labor equivalent of 35 man-hours to make darkness happen, a Cox spokeswoman says.
The World Wildlife Fund made it clear to me how sensitive the issue of cost really is to the marketing of Earth Hour. Two spokespeople for the group threw fits when asked about the costs of Earth Hour.
“I don’t understand why you’re trying to dig up dirt,” says WWF spokesman Dan Forman. “This is ridiculous.”
“We have a global budget for Earth Hour, but I’m not going to give it to you,” says Leslie Aun, vice president of public relations for the WWF. “The purpose of the event was not to save money or power. It’s a symbolic event.”
Seems like a flawed symbol, if it costs more money to switch off lights for an hour than it does to keep them on.
In the case of Phoenix, some of the darkened city buildings were false, not just flawed, symbols. That’s because city staffers drew the blinds on a number of windows to mask the security lighting that had to remain on. The idea was to fool people on the ground, who might think the city wasn’t fully committed, according to one city employee who’d rather stay anonymous.
Lots of regular folks and businesses got involved in Earth Hour and felt good about it. People at restaurants ate by candlelight and students walked through Arizona State University’s downtown campus with flashlights.
“For anyone wondering if this was all a waste of energy,” Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon later pointed out in an Internet article, “… the message behind Earth Hour was that each of us can do our part – just by taking whatever small, simple steps work for us and our family.”
Which all sounds very reasonable, not to mention warm and fuzzy. Except that in Phoenix, it actually was a waste of energy. Small, simple steps are too small and simple to really work. That’s the overall theme of this week’s special “Green Fatigue” edition of New Times.
In the big scheme of things, Earth Hour was a drop in the bucket. Power companies APS and SRP saw a reduction in power equal to the elimination of about 9,000 homes for that hour, says APS spokesman Dan Wool. The companies saw a combined drop of about 45 megawatts of power, he says. By comparison, APS alone delivered about 3,500 of power that fine spring day. On the hottest summer days, APS pumps out about twice that much power.
Imagine that each of those hypothetical 9,000 homes taken off the grid for Earth Hour had an average monthly bill of $300. That would be about $2.7 million total. The average month has 730 hours, so that means the money saved by Earth Hour, in terms of retail energy cost, was less than $3,700.
In other words, the $3,000 spent by Phoenix alone nearly equals the total energy savings of Earth Hour in Arizona.
Good thing this wasn’t about saving money or power.
Other costs would be difficult to measure, especially without the help of event’s organizer. The WWF’s Aun says her group normally does not release internal financial figures, and she couldn’t even say whether the WWF itself made or lost money on Earth Hour.
Most of the expenses were paid by corporate sponsors, and much of the labor was donated as well, she says. That may have saved cities or the WWF some money, but those resources still came from somewhere. Even volunteers have to eat, drive around and otherwise make use of energy derived from fossil fuels to put on Earth Hour.
If you could total up all the energy it took to put on Earth Hour, it probably exceeded the savings in power, if this area’s experience is any guide. Meaning Earth Hour hurt the Earth, not helped it.
Aun maintains the event was a wild success that raised awareness worldwide about energy conservation.
“Our corporate sponsors were extremely pleased,” Aun says.
That statement alone should raise suspicion. If the corporations didn’t save much money in power costs, what were they so happy about? The publicity, that’s what. The ability to tell consumers, “See, we’re being green!”
Newspapers, TV news stations and Internet writers gave Earth Hour uncounted millions of dollars in free publicity. Aun claims that more than three million people clicked on the WWF’s website on March 29. That’s a lot of potential donors. As the Earth Hour Web site states, most sizes of the WWF’s $29.95 Earth Hour T-shirt are sold out.
Some businesses or government entities will save money in the long haul because Earth Hour, because they learned how to better save electricity, Aun says.
Maybe, maybe not.
Wasting energy is bad habit most Americans can’t kick. Even the power companies struggle with it.
APS, for instance, turned off about 5,200 lights in its downtown Phoenix headquarters for Earth Hour, says spokesman Dan Wool. The lights were considered non-essential, unrelated to security or the company’s operations, he says.
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Wool is thrown for a loop when asked why APS usually leaves those lights on. He laughs. Then there’s an uncomfortable pause.
“It’s a really good question,” he admits. “You stumped me on that one.”