Lighting the Future

Inevitably, when I stumble into a conversation about sustainability in theater production, I always find myself sighing a bit when I get to the part about theatrical lighting. It’s sort of like the bruiser of the game–it’s big, a bit unruly, and it throws its weight around without any seeming remorse for the damage it’s doing to the world outside. It simply costs us huge when we consider energy use and promoting more sustainable, green practices in the theater.

On average, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that approximately 1.34 pounds of CO2 are released into the atmosphere for every kilowatt hour burned. If we were to extrapolate that figure to determine the carbon footprint of a typical regional theater resulting from its use of theatrical lighting equipment we would find that the “Generic Theater Company,” running 150 ETC Source Four lighting instruments with 575 watt HPL lamps an average of six hours per day would produce about 253,000 lbs of carbon dioxide per year (we could, of course, fuss around with the “hours per day” figure I decided on, but I spent a few years as a theatrical electrician at an SPT and have a good idea just how long those instruments are really burning from day to day in a theater with a full production and rental calendar). That’s nearly 130 tons of greenhouse gases, and is roughly equivalent to the energy use of fifteen average U.S. households annually.1 Pre 1992 (which is to say, pre Source Four)–and in the case of smaller, poorer theaters to this day–our “Generic Theater Company,” burning the same number of 1000 watt lamps for the same number of hours would produce over 440,000 lbs of CO2 annually. An increase of nearly 200,000 pounds. The difference between the two is large, as if twenty passenger cars were taken off the road for an entire year2, and the improvement should not be dismissed lightly; but, is 253,000 lbs of CO2 pouring into the atmosphere already saturated with greenhouse gases still too much?

Whatever your answer to that question, it doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.

There are, however, new technologies that are beginning to show promise for theatrical applications–especially LEDs. What makes them so promising is simple: exceptionally long lamp life (essentially forever), and incredibly low energy use–not to mention how cool their temperature remains, and the potential to retain their color temperature when dimmed. These amazing little things (short for Light Emitting Diode) have been mentioned in ecoTheater before, and they are slowly becoming the green answer to light application in commercial architecture, and even in new homes. They do have some issues when it comes to theatrical use, however, and while there are LED instruments on the market, they don’t come close to competing with the performance of instruments like the Source Four. It is, to be sure, the next wave of innovation–and it’s highly anticipated.

So it’s not hard to believe that some companies, like Electronic Theatre Controls (ETC) here in Wisconsin (the developer of the Source Four), are not exactly forthcoming about their prospects to develop theatrical-use LED instruments whilst in the heat of industry competition. An encouraging bit of news, however, can be found in the most recent issue of Stage Directions: “Martin Professional Gets Grant for LED Development,” the header reads on the magazine’s “industry news” page. Martin Professional, an industry giant, received the grant from the Danish National Advanced Technology Foundation (DNATF) to fund a cooperative project called Intelligent Light Emitting Diodes (INLED). Martin will work with Aalborg University and DNATF on the project over the course of the next two years. Says Martin’s CEO Christian Engsted: “This initiative further emphasizes Martin’s desire to lead the development and set the standards within our industry as well as our commitment to continue to improve lighting efficiency to benefit the environment.” Providing such talk isn’t more corporate greenwashing, who can argue with that?

Could this be the beginning of the end for the old way of lighting theater? Martin explicitly states in a press release regarding the DNATF grant that “The goal of INLED is to develop new technologies for LED based fixtures as substitutes for existing more inefficient technologies.” And what a lofty, worthy goal it is.


5 Responses to “Lighting the Future”

  1. March 26, 2008 at 12:14 am

    And figuring the cost of each watt for that show by solar at $4.15 per watt you’re looking at a solar array thats about one hectare and costs $357,937.50

  2. March 26, 2008 at 8:09 am

    Ian —

    Your solar array figure seems to be indicating that the general gist of my post on sustainable theater demanding a new paradigm was closer to the mark than some people think. Or, at least, in order to keep up current trends in conventional theater production while achieving true (ecological) sustainability, organizations can expect to dole out serious investments in renewable energy, among other improvements — which means they be threatening their financial sustainability.

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