Fwd: Lights out, they hope

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Thu Jun 21 2001 - 14:48:25 BST

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    Lights out, they hope

    Prompted by an e-mail warning, many plan to conserve for a night

    By Tara H. Arden-Smith, Globe Correspondent, 6/21/2001

    Hilda Marshall got it at least five times. Michael Charney, perhaps more
    than 20.

    It's the e-mail message that seemed to come from nowhere, but aims to
    affect the world, if only for a few hours. It asks readers to shut off,
    and shut down, their home electricity for three hours tonight to
    demonstrate a critical mass of people concerned enough about energy
    consumption to unplug it all.

    The many thousands in Massachusetts - and millions worldwide - who have
    forwarded the ''Roll Your Own Blackout'' message to others hope to cause
    a dip on the power grid and send a message to policymakers: The Bay State
    may have plenty of energy for any foreseeable demand, but the supply
    outpaces what it needs.

    Those who plan to participate say they are motivated in part by idealism
    and the immediacy of the results.

    ''I think the reason I like the idea is that it admits that it's
    fanciful,'' said Marshall, a Somerville small-business owner and
    self-professed Internet dependent. ''It's being forwarded as something
    fun, a novelty.''

    And, she said, ''I think one of the reasons it's gotten so popular is
    that nobody attached to [the message] is asking for money.''

    Few recipients seem to know, or even care, who's behind the message, and
    the e-mail seems to evolve each time it's passed along. An early version,
    which surfaced in mid-April, outlines ''a simple protest and a symbolic
    act. Turn out your lights and unplug everything.''

    Environmental unease can be a boon, though, to small pockets of the
    economy. Among them, merchants selling candles. Ned Hand, owner of the
    South End housewares shop Fresh Eggs, says hers are flying off her
    shelves by the dozens.

    Most local power companies said they are interested to see the response
    to the Internet call to action. The blackout is set to start at 7 p.m. in
    each time zone around the world, ending at 10 p.m.; New England's time
    zone, nearly a day behind the international date line, will be among the
    last regions to participate.

    Penned by a Berkeley, Calif., engineer and tweaked by a Los Angeles
    artist who saw it on a Web site, the e-mail first surfaced in April on
    just a few dozen computers. The plan gradually took hold and spread
    worldwide.

    Since then, Internet observers and media critics have called it one of
    the first grass-roots endeavors to have penetrated so wide and so deeply.

    ''Everybody right now is, in one form or another, talking about energy,''
    said Representative John J. Binienda, a Worcester Democrat and chairman
    of the state Legislature's energy committee. As gasoline prices and
    electric bills continue to rise, ''people are getting concerned in a way
    we haven't seen in a while,'' he said.

    Susan Tierney, a Cambridge energy consultant and former state and federal
    energy official, said it would take the electric shutdown of 25,000 of
    the state's 2.5 million households to register even a blip in consumption
    and perhaps 100,000 more to surpass the statistical margin of error.

    But any noticeable number, she added, might give a hint to policymakers
    that residential consumers - about 30 percent of all energy consumers
    during weekday evening hours - are taking notice of their own energy
    usage and are willing to conserve.

    ''One of the things this might show is what you can really get people to
    do when you need them to do it,'' Tierney said. ''Until this year,
    nothing could be more boring to people than talking about electricity,
    but suddenly we're talking about asking people to cut themselves off
    during prime-time TV hours ... it would be very useful to know as a
    political signal.''

    Though few can even guess what the response might be, ''it seems like the
    message has gone around the planet a couple of times,'' said Charney, a
    Cambridge psychiatrist who co-chairs the Massachusetts Climate Action
    Network. ''If people everywhere do it, it'll be the electronic-era
    equivalent of holding hands around the globe.''

    Charlene Garland, associate director of the New Hampshire-based Clean
    Air, Cool Planet, has faced a slew of questions about the blackout,
    mostly from friends who aren't involved in the environmental movement.
    ''It's been coming up a lot in just normal conversation,'' she said.
    ''And from the conversations it's come up in, the message has definitely
    penetrated well beyond the usual suspects.''

    This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 6/21/2001. Copyright
    2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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