Turn off the lights!


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When I was growing up in Queens in the 1960s, I was the apartment dweller among my friends, whose families lived in private houses in our neighborhood. Visiting one of my buddies’ homes after an autumn baseball toss, I heard my friend’s father ask his son, “Hey Champ, do you own lots of Edison stock?”

I soon realized that my friend had left the door to the house wide open, and that people paid “Edison” to heat their homes and illuminate their light bulbs and televisions. So, that father was creatively reminding his 12-year-old-son not to waste energy and run up the family bills. The lesson even inspired me to start conserving energy in my family’s apartment.

Fast forwarding to my service in federal and New York City administrations, I was the boss who, after 5 p.m., might turn off the computer screen on the desk of an out-the-door employee, on my way to the men’s room, where I’d also later kill that light for the evening.

Some easy, really easy, conservation measures are right before us, or at least our public servants, every day.

To wit, on a recent Sunday, a spectacularly brilliant day was emerging, as the sun continued to rise in the eastern sky over Little Neck Bay at 7:20 a.m. However, the highway lights along the Clearview Expressway were burning as brightly as one would expect at 2 a.m. The lights were illuminated on the Throgs Neck Bridge, the Cross Bronx Expressway and on the Port Authority’s George Washington Bridge. These are hardly exceptions, unfortunately.

Over the last 15 years or so, especially as a city Commissioner and non-profit CEO, I have often observed highway lighting burning brazenly on the Long Island Expressway, the Grand Central Parkway, the Cross Island Parkway, and on countless streets in all five boroughs.

Other city properties, such as Central Park, Cadman Plaza Park and Fort Totten all feature street and roadway lighting shining in broad daylight. Most public school properties observed present some lighting switched on for no reason during the day.

Our street lighting is triggered by “photocell electric control” (PEC), which is supposed to switch lights on at dusk, and off at dawn.

The city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) maintains about 300,000 lights on our streets, bridges, highways and underpasses. The city is to be commended for the progress they have made in converting our road and street lighting to LED “Cobra heads” from HPS luminaires. More than one-quarter of the lights have been changed. When that project is completed, the city anticipates reductions in lighting energy consumption of about 25 percent. That, however, is countered by rising energy delivery costs, which grew by 27 percent between 2006 and 2009.

The new street lights will cost between $72.51 and $102.52 per year in energy costs, versus $187.53 for the old HPS lights, according to a DOT report.

But what about the cost of all those lights that are burning day and night?

If just 5 percent of the 300,000 lights maintained by the city are shining needlessly in daylight, at an average cost of roughly $150 a year, that would mean about $2.25 million in sheer waste this year.

That amount, $2.25 million, could fund nearly 375,000 meals delivered to the homebound elderly, through my former agency. Or, those dollars could pay the salaries of 70 new caseworkers at a city-funded foster care program.

Can’t someone promise to turn off the outdoor lights during the daytime hours, and make good on it? If not, it’s surely time to invest in “Edison,” as that wise Queens Dad advised some 40 years ago.

Herbert W. Stupp was New York City’s fourth Commissioner on Aging, from 1994 to 2002.