Brownout Is the New Black

IN SAN FRANCISCO THIS FALL, brown is the new black. Or at least it will be if Lights Out San Francisco, calling for turning off all unnecessary electricity for an hour, leads to a successful, self-imposed brownout. Organizers hope the San Francisco sky will be lit only by emergency services, car lights and streetlights once businesses, residences and government edifices go dark October 20.

Nate Tyler, founder of Lights Out, was inspired by his visit to Sydney, Australia, whose “Earth Hour” last spring so darkened skies that long-invisible stars blazed overhead, people dined by candlelight — and 2.2 million participants reduced electricity usage 10 percent and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 25 tons.

Sydney’s feat was equivalent to removing 49,000 cars from the road for 60 minutes, and San Francisco hopes to do the same as structures like the Bay Bridge, City Hall, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and the TransAmerica Building go dim.

Now, belatedly, Los Angeles officials are playing catch-up in a bid reminiscent of the city’s much-criticized Millennium Eve celebrations, attended by few and sprinkled so far afield from each other that they failed to capture local imagination.

San Francisco’s plans have been under way for six months, but the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a Lights Out campaign on October 2 — only 18 days before the event. County Supervisor Yvonne Burke and City Council Member Wendy Greuel are trying to get the word out, asking county employees, residents and businesses to snuff their lights between 8 and 9 p.m.

“We like to share good ideas,” Karly Katona, deputy for Burke, says cheerily.

But local officials have done little to get the word out. City Hall will participate, and the county will power down the decorative lights of the Hall of Administration and the Department of Water and Power. But the county has no volunteers to get out the word or build support, and city officials say they are only just beginning to think about that.

Sydney planned its energy consciousness-raising hour for more than six months, backed by main sponsors Fairfax Media and the World Wildlife Fund Australia, but also with visible support by Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore.

Rob Scott, a blogger in Australia and manager of (, who documented the event, says Moore got behind Earth Hour in a big way. She has urged other mayors to follow her example, and at a speech to the C40 Large Cities Climate summit in Australia last May, she told the audience that “Sydney’s Earth Hour showed that, cooperatively, we can make a difference.”

Quite a contrast to Los Angeles, where it seems Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has yet to become fully aware of Lights Out Los Angeles Day. “It’s not on the mayor’s agenda,” an individual from the Mayor’s Office said, adding, “Don’t quote me on that.”

By comparison, in San Francisco, Rachel Ray, program manager for Lights Out San Francisco, works with about 100 volunteers, and has been securing donors and doing PR for months. The Lights Out Web site has been up and running since the beginning of August, and a blog written by founder Tyler has been touting the event since last spring.

Los Angeles has a Web site, too — a near replica of San Francisco’s, and online for only a few weeks.

Sydney’s city leadership got an enthusiastic buy-in even from residents not involved in the environmental movement or particularly worried about energy use, by stressing the splendors of unveiling the long-vanished night sky, which is wiped out in most cities by extensive nighttime light pollution.

“The Sydney Observatory is in the middle of the city and they coordinated a special event that allowed people to come into the observatory and see the brighter sky,” says an enthused Jeff Lewis, spokesman for Sydney’s Lord Mayor.

By comparison, in L.A., Joann Bowlin, head operations manager of the Griffith Observatory, knew nothing about Lights Out L.A. “We do what we can to not flood the sky with light,” a flustered Bowlin said, adding that it would be impossible to turn off the Observatory’s theatrical lights because it is open to the public at night.

Burke and Greuel say they also hope to persuade residents on October 20 to remove incandescent bulbs and replace them with compact fluorescent bulbs, which they say would cut more energy use than turning off all lights for one hour. But maybe the city’s best bet for avoiding a replay of Millennium Eve will come on March 29. On that day, Brian Scott, director of operations for Lights Out America, is coordinating a massive brownout involving New York, Seattle, Boston, Denver, Miami, Chicago — and Los Angeles.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >