Earth Hour diary: Chicago

It's all about individual choices. So, it's appropriate that Consulting-Specifying Engineer reports on Earth Hour with personal anecdotes.

By Consulting Specifying Engineer Staff April 1, 2008

It’s all about individual choices. So, it’s appropriate that Consulting-Specifying Engineer reports on Earth Hour with personal anecdotes. In the end, it was about individuals using the event to ponder their own contribution to energy consumption and reflect on ways to reduce their impact.

Truth be told, CSE also had another reason: We assigned photographer Mark Berlow to document the effect on the Chicago skyline. Berlow donated his Saturday night and braved high winds to produce the series of photos at right.

For anyone unaware, Earth Hour is a collective effort where citizens and facilities in major global cities voluntarily turned off their lights—and as many other electrical appliances as possible—for one hour (in Chicago, from 8 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, March 29). Earth Hour has its origins in an event sponsored in Sydney, Australia, on March 31, 2007.

The utility, ComEd, a sponsor of Chicago’s Earth Hour, compared its customers’ electricity usage during the hour with the same hour a week earlier and reported that the reduction in electricity usage in the City of Chicago and Northern Illinois was estimated to be about 537 MWh, the equivalent of reducing nearly 840,000 lbs. of carbon dioxide emissions. Electricity demand for the area dropped by 5%.

The figures are impressive, but it’s the personal angle that is interesting. The CSE editorial staff discovered how, with some minor adjustments, each of us might reduce our carbon footprint. What follow is CSE ‘s diary entries for the event.

Michael Ivanovich , editor-in-chief: My wife and I had planned to have a few friends over for dinner before we had heard about Earth Hour, so we had fun combining the two. Cooking by candlelight was a new experience, but nothing got burned. Between appetizers and desserts, Earth Hour stretched to almost 11 p.m. before a light was switched on. One of our guests walked to our house rather than drive, literally going the extra mile. I don’t know how much energy we saved, but contributing to a national effort to visibly cut energy consumption was a treat. This was heightened by reading about Earth Hour in the newspaper the next morning, and awaiting the photos from Mark Berlow.

Amara Rozgus , senior editor: During Earth Hour, I saved about .33 kWh of electricity. Sounds silly that I calculated it, but I was interested in learning about the impact one individual (or two—my husband was home) could have during Earth Hour.

We planned our Earth Hour carefully, and opted for the full effect. Carrying his cell phone as a flashlight, my husband—trained as a low-voltage communications electrician—went to the basement to turn off all the lights at the circuit breaker. We both held our breath as he flipped the switch. We’d had our 60-year-old house converted just months before from a four-fuse box (with fuses that always blew when the toaster oven was on in conjunction with the microwave), to a multi-circuit breaker box. We hadn’t touched the electrical box since then, and didn’t know what effect turning off the power would have. Would it come back on? Had the electrician wired it correctly? We had an hour to think about it.

Dinner started shortly after 8 p.m. so we could take full advantage of the candle-lit atmosphere. The pizza came out of the oven just minutes before “lights out.”

After dinner, we opened our living room shades to see if the rest of our block was participating. Though Chicago was an Earth Hour participant, the city had not turned off its street lights. Our living room was flooded with orange light from the street lights—we hadn’t even needed the candles. Across the street, all but two of our neighbors seemed to be participating. The two with their electricity on had their drapes wide open, and their large-screen TVs on, almost mocking the rest of us.

Scott Siddens , senior editor: What surprised me most about my personal observance of Earth Hour was the revelation that there are many things that I can do without electricity. It took some preplanning. My wife, daughter, and I made a list of routine activities that can be accomplished in the dark. For me, it was the perfect opportunity to get started on some of the physical exercises that I have only been talking about for months. And it was a chance for family conversation.

From our place, we have a view of Chicago to the west, south, and east. While streetlights continued to glare, it was a remarkable sight to see so many buildings go almost completely dark. And we were inspired not to wait around for next year’s Earth Hour. We’ll continue the practice on a weekly basis—maybe even shoot for two hours of dark each Saturday night.

Melissa Hillebrand , associate editor:My small family remembered Earth Hour—but barely. Leading up to it, I repeatedly e-mailed friends and family to take part in Earth Hour. I encouraged everyone to not just turn off their lights—but to turn off TVs, cell phones, and computers, and unplug microwaves and other appliances.

My boyfriend, our dog, and I live about 2 miles from the downtown Chicago lakefront. Because we nearly forgot, for 10 minutes before Earth Hour we both ran around the house turning off lights and unplugging all appliances and gadgets. We lit candles for dinner in our family room, which was the brightest because it faces the street, and despite Earth Hour, Chicago doesn’t get very dark.

Around 8:30 p.m., the two of us and the dog walked to a major intersection. This intersection gives a clear view to the downtown lakefront and we could see everything from the Hancock building to the Sears Tower. It was a sight to view the outlines of those buildings—but without the lights, antennae lights, and spire lights they usually have on. Even the Walgreens at this intersection had all of its exterior lights off. It was a highlight of the night.