Only The Taggart Building Will Be Spared

One of the images I remember form reading Atlas Shrugged was of darkened skyscrapers, as the government forced the closure of the upper stories of buildings to save energy.  Only building owners with political pull were excepted.  It seems San Francisco is following a similar plan:

Turn the lights out -- or pay.

That's the message of legislation being revived by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who will introduce a measure Tuesday mandating that skyscrapers turn off all nonemergency lights at night as a way to save energy. The introduction comes just days before Earth Hour Saturday, in which people are urged to turn off their lights for an hour at 8 p.m.

The legislation is essentially a new run at a law introduced a year ago by former board president Aaron Peskin that ultimately withered after strong opposition by the Building Owners and Managers Association of San Francisco. (We couldn't reach them by press time Monday). Peskin's proposal mandated building owners turn the lights out, or face administrative fines, but it was criticized as difficult to enforce. Chiu actually pushed Peskin to introduce that legislation, he said.

I would have assumed that if electricity consumption were really so high and so useless, that building owners would have had sufficient reason on their own to turn lights off.  After all, isn't it already turn the lights out or pay?  Unless of course electricity is free in SF.

One problem poorly understood by academics and government officials is that many folks outside of government actually work longer than a 9-4 work day.  As it happens, I am in my office tonight, likely until midnight, catching up on some things I could not with the phone ringing off the hook all day.  The only time I have ever occupied prime downtown real estate in an office tower was when I consulted with McKinsey & Co., and I can say for sure that there was seldom if ever a night when there weren't people in the office working well past midnight  (unfortunately, I was often one of them, which explains why my consulting career outlasted the birth of my first kid by only as long as it took me to find a new job).

Postscript: There is an incentive mis-match at work here in most leases.  Few commercial leases include individual metering for utilities, since most buildings are not set up for it  (it would actually be moderately hard, since office space is often reconfigured over time, shifting from one suite to another).  As a result, there is a kind of tragedy of the commons where renters pay their share of average use for all occupants, diluting the effect of their own usage on their own bills.  I am not sure how fining building owners when their tenants work late is going to help, though.

At the end of the day, this is all micro-managed bullsh*t.  If you want less electricity usage, raise rates, and let individuals figure out how to get the savings.  Just because a particular use (eg night lights in skyscrapers) is the most visible to policy makers does not make it the marginal use or the low hanging fruit for energy savings.


  1. Larry Sheldon:

    Last I heard power in San Francisco is provided at low cost from the Rape of HetchHetchy. PG&E delivers it, I believe.

    But the bigger issue is that lots of those buildings have people in them all night.

    I don't know what situation is nowadays but in years gone by there was no way to turn them off--the costs of turning them off and on exceeded the cost of just running them around the clock.

  2. GU:

    One problem poorly understood by academics and government officials is that many folks outside of government actually work longer than a 9-4 work day.

    There is a paradox for politicians. On the one hand, many would like to limit the amount of hours you can work in a day, for fear of "exploitation" of workers, or because they want to have their cushy, low hours jobs without losing ground on the income ladder to people who will trade leisure for money. On the other hand, they need people to work long hours so they can make a lot of money and then pay a lot in taxes.

  3. Orthogonal Vision:

    On a similar theme, 30 years ago I worked in the SF area and spent weekends wandering the city (no car at the time). There were severe drought conditions and the city decided to save water by only flushing public urinals once a day. Public restrooms were noticeable for quite distance.

    While this sounds like a civic minded notion, the reality was that 96% of the overall water usage in the region was agricultural (and subsidized to boot). A 5% reduction in agricultural usage would have resulted in a better impact than anything residential usage could have had, but SF wanted everyone to be "aware" of the drought.

  4. Raven:

    I plan to turn every light on in house to protest the stupidity of earth hour.

  5. Brian Dunbar:

    If it's a style over substance thing a savvy building owner will purchase black-out curtains ...

  6. Tsiroth:

    Raven: Why stop there? I plan to turn on every light, open my refrigerator door, run every television and radio, run the furnace with the windows open, leave my stove on, run my washer and dryer with one item in each, and leave my car idling in the driveway. I'm hoping to counter the earth hour efforts of at least 3 other people. I have some family members who are not very happy with me. :)

  7. markm:

    Since office buildings universally use large, high-efficiency flourescent lamps, the possible savings from turning lights off are only a few percent of the electric usage. Maybe you don't need much air conditioning in SF, but one trip in an elevator uses more electricity than days of lighting for a 20x20 foot office.