Letter to the Editor

An Important Conversation

To the Editor,

Thank you for the excellent story on electrifying gas lamps! It sets out so clearly the criteria for a pilot project: preserving the look and feel of our beloved lamps, finding a plan that would work for the entire city, and ensuring community input. But there’s more to the story.

As a resident of Temple Street, I’m passionate about this topic. In December 2019, Temple Street residents petitioned the City to support a pilot project to electrify the lamps on our street, which is only one block long. We were prompted initially by the smell of gas leaks, then by the discovery that gas leaks were significantly hurting our trees, and then by a broader understanding of the many harms caused by our uses of fossil gas. The City set aside $400,000 for that pilot project, responding to advocacy on our behalf from Mothers Out Front, a grassroots organization fighting climate change. The project fell into limbo during the mayoral transitions, but we can expect the new mayoral team to revive consideration of a pilot project.

Why did the City agree to fund such a pilot, and why should it?  The City foresaw substantial reductions in both greenhouse gas emissions and expenses.

Boston has approximately 2,800 gas lamps, which burn 24 hours a day. The City estimated that electrifying gas lamps would reduce emissions by 410,000 metric tons of CO2 a year—approximately equivalent to the yearly emissions of 1,170 gas-heated homes.  Gas lamps produce 38% of the City’s emissions from lighting although they are only 4% of the City’s lighting units. (Overall, lighting contributes 9% of the City’s emissions).

Moreover, the City expected to save nearly $1 million annually in fuel costs and maintenance. At 2019 rates, it estimated costs of $865,000 for gas and only $159,000 for electricity—a saving of $706,000 a year on fuel. The City was also spending an additional $200-250,000 yearly to maintain the gas lamps—and can’t keep up. LEDs would rarely need maintenance; LED bulbs operating on average 8 hours a day would last for years. Finally, it has cost the City $750 to replace a single tree. On our one block  alone, we lost 6 trees to gas leaks.

The City and the proponents of this pilot were and are committed to an open public process. Since the primary concern will be the look and feel of electrified lamps, the downtown chapter of Mothers Out Front has been working with a lighting consultant and gathering data to ensure accurate comparison. Its members have measured the lumens at various distances from representative gas lamps throughout Beacon Hill and have been assured that current LED technology can convey the same warm and low-light atmosphere we have now. 

Note, by the way, that the current use of gas in Beacon Hill lamps is not as historic as many think.  Almost all of Beacon Hill’s gas lamps were installed after 1960 by Boston Gas; those on Temple Street not until 1977.  Beacon Hill lamps have previously been fueled by oil, coal, naphtha gas, or electricity.

We have been able to preserve the look of our homes but change the sources of their fuel. We can preserve the look of our beautiful lamps while upgrading to a more sustainable and non-polluting source of energy.  This is an important conversation!

Betsy Peterson

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