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Tamminen: A Green Tale of Two Cities

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Dickens begins his novel with the famous line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Were he writing today about the two American cities—Lexington, Mass. and Colorado Springs, Colo.— he might say, “It was the brightest of towns, it was the dimmest of towns.” In this case, bright and dim refer quite literally to light levels, but also to the decision making of two very different sets of civic leaders.

The brightest bulbs, literally and figuratively, are in Lexington where town Selectmen approved a plan to replace inefficient streetlights with newer energy and carbon saving models. The move will cut electricity costs from over $286,000 per year to under $70,000—a dramatic 75-percent reduction.

The cost of the retrofits will be repaid by savings in under four years, after which the town pockets those substantial benefits. Energy-efficient lights last about six times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs, so the town will also cut its labor cots for streetlight maintenance by more than 80%.

On the dimmer side of this tale, Colorado Springs has turned off one third of its streetlights in an effort to save money in these times of tight government budgets. Not only has this already led to complaints about public safety, it hasn’t solved the problem.

The town is also laying off police officers and selling police helicopters, potentially aggravating the crimes those resources previously prevented and incurring more costs for taxpayers in the long run. How many cops would still be on the beat in Colorado Springs if its leaders had cut street light costs by 75 percent—without turning off a single lamp—and applied those savings to the police department?

Lexington’s moves are bright in another way. The cost to retrofit outdated fixtures and bulbs creates local jobs. And many cities are partnering with the private sector to pay for these improvements, rather than incurring big upfront costs at a time when the community chest is empty, repaying investors from the energy savings over time.

The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage
The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage

A tale of two cities indeed. One that is creating green jobs, maintaining public safety, harnessing the power of public-private partnerships, reducing carbon pollution, bringing down the cost of new technology for everyone (by being a big early customer) and maybe even restoring some small measure of faith in our government in the process. The other is laying off workers, imperiling public safety, squandering scarce tax dollars, further polluting the air we breathe, and quite literally creating a new Dark Ages for its community.

Dickens’ novel is set against the backdrop of the French Revolution and of course Lexington is famous for the ride of Paul Revere and a seminal battle in the American Revolution. Perhaps this modern tale of two cities will help spark a revolution of another kind in more US cities—one that overthrows the tyranny of waste, carbon pollution, and the resulting impacts to our planet. If so, then this story may end with the same benediction found at the end of another of Dickens’ memorable tales—“God bless us, every one.”

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Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).