A Green Light to the Environment

In a capitalist economy, what is the best way to encourage the usage of environmentally sound products? By making it profitable to do so. This is the economic logic behind the Environmental Protection Agency's new energy program: Green Lights.

A volunteer program, Green Lights promotes the widespread use of energy-efficient lighting by convincing organizations to sign on to a non-binding contract.

Signatories agree to replace the lighting of 90 percent of their lighted space, if two conditions are met: the lighting upgrade is profitable, and the quality of lighting is either met or improved. Participants also agree to appoint a manager who oversees participation in the program.

Green Lights benefits the environment as much as those who sign on to it. According to the EPA, lighting accounts for 20 to 25 percent of the electricity used annually in the United States-up to 90 percent of a lighting energy is used by businesses.

This energy costs environmentally: Generating electricity involves burning fossil fuels or running a nuclear reactor or hydroelectric plant. These processes can result in many forms of pollution: acid mine drainage, oil spills, natural gas leakage, toxic waste and air pollutants. Energy efficient lighting can decrease the amount of energy needed to meet lighting electricity demand by more than 50 percent.

MIT saved $4 million with Green Lights by upgrading the lighting on its 8 million square feet of lit space. With 17 million square feet of lighting. Harvard should be paying serious attention to the potential savings it may lose if it does not join Green Lights. If MIT's savings are any indication, the University could reduce its operating costs by $1 million to 8 million. Such a decrease in costs would leave more money for research, professors and capital investments--and it could enable the University to cut its sky-rocketing tuition.

These estimates could be made much more reliable if the University would agree to take a survey of its lighting system. If such a survey predicts significant savings, then Harvard would be foolish not to adopt the Green Lights program.

By joining the program, Harvard would be sending an important environmental message to the future leaders it is breeding, and to the many educational institutions for which it is a model. If the University does not cooperate with a voluntary EPA program, it will be sending out one, blatant message: "We don't really care about the environment--even if doing so would save us millions of dollars."

Besides the ideological and public relations issues at stake, it makes little sense, from a business perspective, for the University to spend more money than it has to on lighting. But Harvard is a non-profit organization, and it does not always respond as quickly to economic incentives as a for-profit business might.

Students, then, may have to goad the University into positive action. If Harvard, out of institutional lethargy, refuses to sign on to Green Lights, then students must unite to pressure the University into spending their tuition more efficiently.

If the University complains that Green Lights is too complicated or labor-intensive to execute, it will have to explain how 753 participants-including Brandeis, Tufts, Brovin, Columbia, and a number of other colleges--managed to profit from joining Green Lights. The program has even offered to work out various finance options for start-up costs. It has an updated financing directory which lists sources of third-party and "shared-savings" capital from outside firms.

In the past, these firms have financed the program in exchange for a share of the future savings. The directory also includes all known utility rebates and incentives.

By joining the Green Lights program, Harvard would not only do its share of energy conservation, but it would encourage others to follow. If energy-efficient lighting were used everywhere profitable, the EPA figures that the nation's demand for electricity could be cut by more than 10 percent.

This would reduce the nation's annual carbon dioxide emissions by 202 million metric tons, which is equivalent to the exhaust expelled from 44 million cars. Harvard students, as tuition-payers and citizens of the earth, cannot afford to see Green Lights ignored.

Gil B. Lahav '94 is co-chair of the Undergraduate Council's Ad Hoc Committee on Environmental Affairs and an editor of The Crimson.