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September 03, 2011

LightsOut Ohio Sheds Light on Unnecessary Energy Use


By Rich Fein, Portage Trail Group Conservation Chair

[That's Fein, above at right, with (l to r) fellow Portage Group leaders Laurel Gress, Paul Feezel, Neal Broida, and Dan Nelson.]

LightsOut Ohio engages schools, workplaces, and religious institutions throughout all of Summit County, Ohio, to turn off non-essential lights during the day, relying on natural light, in order to become more aware of how we use energy unnecessarily and to change our behaviors.

Activists with the Portage Trail Group (Akron-Canton area) sent letters and follow-up phone calls to public school curriculum directors and private/parochial school directors, informing them of the program and asking for their participation.

We included summaries of the full package of services we offered, including tools for communicating the program throughout the school system, handouts, a website with grade-specific, energy-related lessons selected from key environmental educational organizations, and endorsements from political leaders and an advisory board of science educators. Fourteen of 17 public schools agreed to participate.

For businesses, we reached out through the use of viral emails, encouraging Sierra Club members and others to initiate the program at their places of work. The Mayor of Akron, Summit County's major city, and the County Executive both agreed to encourage workers to turn off lights in their offices. We also partnered with the major local newspaper to issue a multiple-run, full-page guide with energy conservation tips for both homes and workplaces.


[Note: This photo was intentianally taken in low-light conditions 'just for kicks."]

We produced and distributed various handouts announcing the event, with energy-saving tips. One was a school handout to take home with a class assignment. We also produced posters for workplaces, with energy-saving ideas for the home on the flip side. We developed a website with grade-appropriate lesson plans selected from various noted environmental organizations:

We estimate that 40-to-60 percent of all school children in Summit County participated in the program by turning off non-essential lights for at least one hour on Earth Day. Many also participated in energy-related classroom and take-home assignments.

An unknown number of businesses and government agencies participated, but some of the larger businesses in the county did participate. Thirty-eight registered and received certificates of participation, but we believe that many others participated without reporting.

Major factors that led to success were:

1) Focusing on group behavior, encouraging whole organizations to participate. We needed to encourage only one key contact to then gain the support of the rest of the organization.

2) Staging the event on Earth Day, when people were more aware and prepared to address environmental concerns.

3) Focusing on turning off lights during the day, depending on natural light - especially in offices and schools that typically had plenty of natural light. This was more effective than asking people to try and function in the dark, using candles, dealing with nighttime security, etc.

4) Forming an advisory group of science educators, including the science curriculum specialist for the largest district, gathering their advice, and using their endorsement for recruitment letters.

5) Getting major governmental organizations to agree to participate and provide their endorsement.

6) Gaining the cooperation of a major newspaper.

Challenges we met included:

1) Recruiting volunteers, especially to assist in calling on schools, churches, etc., to participate. This requires a high level of confidence and somewhat of a sales approach. Many volunteers are not prepared to make this type of commitment and carry it out effectively.

2) Getting school systems to communicate and get participation at the building level. Some did well. Some did not.

3) Getting a website constructed efficiently an inexpensively. We originally hired a college student selected by faculty at a university. The student turned out to be unqualified, and the faculty member chose to abandon the project rather than rectify the situation. The key organizer of the event-in this case, me-knew enough about HTML to make the website sufficiently functional.

One of the key lessons we learned was that unless you have a large group of professionally qualified volunteers, it's best to focus on a specific segment. Rather than try to reach schools, businesses, and religious groups, pick just one.

It's important to find a way to engage volunteers. If you have sufficient volunteer or staff resources, it's good to partner with another key community organization or perhaps a private company to challenge the business community to get 500 organizations to register and participate.

Next time, we're considering changing the name so as to communicate that this is about more than just turning off lights-it's about changing all our energy-wasting habits. We might also change the format to encourage energy-saving actions year-round.

Have a success story to share? We'd like to hear about it. Go to the Success Stories project on the Sierra Club's Activist Network and let others learn from your experience.


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