When discussing energy savings, there’s a principle often cited by economists called the Jevons paradox, which postulates that as the use of a resource becomes more efficient, consumption of that resource tends to increase, rather than decrease. The counterintuitive theory’s namesake, 19th century economist William Stanley Jevons, was originally talking about how improvements in coal burning only increased demand for coal, and therefore led to more consumption, but his theory has been applied to many other ironies of life, such as diet foods that make us eat more.
The logic of the Jevons paradox has been debated and debunked by many environmental writers, but the idea resurfaced after the recent installation of more than 700 energy-efficient LED lighting units on the exterior of New York City’s famous Helmsley Building to make the 84-year-old Beaux-Arts-style skyscraper shine at night like never before.
According to The Lighting Practice, the company that made the lighting conversion in December 2012, the new LED lamps made by Lumenpulse use 70 percent less energy than the old high-pressure sodium lights that used to light up the 34-story Park Avenue tower. During the holidays, the computer-controlled lights morphed through a coordinated rainbow of colors and were synched to a violin-music soundtrack. But for most nights, the building has been presented in a series of static, multihued washes.
Last November, The Lighting Practice installed the same type of LED lighting, although to a lesser extent, to the upper floors and spire of the iconic Empire State Building, which now displays a brighter, wider range of colors at night. The Philadelphia-based company has installed efficient exterior and interior lighting in dozens of offices, universities and public buildings nationwide.
One reader of a recent Triple Pundit story on the Helmsley lighting brought up Jevons in the comments section and then asked: “Why in the world does this building need to be totally lit up? Just because it’s ‘efficient lighting’ doesn’t meant it’s sustainably minded.”
The reader makes a good point: The 70 percent “savings” on electricity seems a bit silly when one realizes that keeping an office building brilliantly lit for no purpose other than to make the building look pretty at night is simply a waste of electricity, as are the man-hours needed to install the system. If sustainability is the main goal, why not go for 100 percent efficiency and turn the whole darned thing off at night when no one’s using it?
A more impressive environmental boast might be the LEED Gold rating that the Helmsley Building received in 2010 after a $100 million retrofit of its 1.4 million square feet of office space, or the even more extensive $550 million LEED Gold-certified retrofit of the Empire State Building in 2011. These upgrades to the daily operational efficiency of these structures suggest that there are a lot more savings that can be squeezed out of old buildings than we can create by replacing them with newer, high-tech towers — or by adding a fancier, more efficient light show as window dressing.
Arguments about light usage, however, tend not to hold up well in New York, where bigger is almost always seen as better, and a brightly lit skyline is seen as a core identity, as evidenced recently by the emotional reaction felt by New Yorkers following the post-Sandy blackout last fall. In Manhattan, lights are rarely held under a bushel for very long.
Whether or not Jevons would object to these LED displays in terms of economic impact is debatable. The aesthetic results, however, are inarguably beautiful.