Earth Hour Event Planned by Maricopa County; Costs of Climate-Change-Awareness Program Unclear

Maricopa County is celebrating Earth Hour this year by shutting off "non-essential" lights for one hour at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday.

We decided to spend part of our Friday afternoon bugging county officials about this feel-good event, because our past research shows it typically costs governments and big companies more than it saves -- in other words, it's just more wasted energy.

Richard de Uriarte, the county spokesman who sent out the news release on the event, couldn't tell us much about it.

Facilities Management Director Janet Palacino had no idea how much the event would cost the county, or who authorized it.

Finally, we reached Jonce Walker, the county's sustainability manager, who told us that Facilities Management signed off on the project. 

Walker told us a "little cost might be associated" with Earth Hour, but that a corresponding cost savings could be achieved by the lower use of electrictity.

We doubt that. As we reported two years ago, it cost the city of Phoenix $3,000 to shut off a few lights. No way do those lights cost $3,000 an hour to run.

Then there's the question of what lights the county will actually be flicking off. The news release says:

Maricopa County officials will shut off non-essential life and safety lights in all of the county's downtown campus buildings, including the jails and Chase Field...

Sheriff Arpaio told the Arizona Republic two years ago the only light he felt safe in shutting off was Tent City's "No Vacancy" sign. We're not sure which lights he's agreed to shut off this year, or which will be switched off at Chase Field, but it probably won't be very many lights.

Palacino told us that only some lights in the main county administration building will be shut off, not in "all the county's downtown campus buildings" and not in the court buildings.

And Walker tells us that any non-essential lights in the administration building turned off at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday would typically be turned off anyway. He grew frustrated at our line of questioning, saying the main message of Earth Hour was to spread awareness of climate change.

We suspect the main goal is to raise money for the event's chief organizer, the World Wildlife Fund.

But if Earth Hour raises awareness of anything, it's that we simply can't seem to do without electric light.

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