Skylights: The Fluorescent Conspiracy

Steve Baer, Zomeworks Corporation

This article originally appeared in Solar Mind, Issue 15, 1993.

New discoveries in photovoltaic cells and solar thermal power plants are announced every few months, but unfortunately we are forgetting old uses of the sun faster than we are discovering new ones.

Why do new stores have no skylights? A few weeks ago I visited an enormous new single story toy store. Shelves of plastic toys reached up towards a heaven of rows of fluorescent lights. The huge store was using 50 to 100 horsepower of electricity to light unpleasantly what a few percent of the roof in skylights would light pleasantly. (At 1 watt per square foot the same power running electric motors could lift cars parked bumper-to-bumper over the same enormous floor about 1 foot a minute.) At least 100 acres of these toy stores, grocery stores, fabric stores, dime stores, drug stores and auto supply stores have been put up in the last few years in Albuquerque. They gave forgotten how to use natural lighting. Ten megawatts of electricity need never have been generated if the architects could remember how single story buildings were made 75 or 100 years ago.

Why have we forgotten how to use the sun? If you shine enough fluorescent light on me, I also forget. I come under a spell, a new outline to my personality appears under the strong electric lights, like a picture revealed under UV lights. Struggling with my fluorescent form in the huge new stores, I notice strange people in the aisles, the fluorescent gang, figures you don't see elsewhere - a deeply tanned 60-year-old blonde with a low-cut blouse, a man dressed as if he were an assistant cowboy. I am not myself. I simply don't form the sentence for the store manager, "I wish you would put in skylights or clerestories and turn off these unpleasant electric lights."

Today if you read the press you find our hope for solar energy is placed on new photovoltaic panels, not on old-fashioned skylights, but if you take a typical photovoltaic panel and pull the expensive silicon crystals away from the front glass and use the plain glass in a skylight, it will admit not twice as much, but at least ten times a much light as could be produced by the photovoltaic cells powering electric lights - and most of us prefer the quality of natural light.

Is there a force weaning us from Mother Nature's free and natural sun so we will grow up to purchase an electric substitute? If you discuss the matter of lighting with a store manager while 100 kilowatts of electricity glow around him, you suspect that your protests about electricity and desire for the sun suggest the tiresome whining of a child being weaned.

God gave us the sun long ago. It is no use questioning whether the sun is a good energy source or whether it would have been better if he'd used fluorescent bulbs. I felt the question was out of reach until a conversation with a man who works for astronomers and materials scientists setting up heliostats which reflect sun onto targets and solar furnaces. I was unsettled by his offhand answer that it would be impossible to use a giant heliostat to light and thaw a north entrance of a shopping center:

He: It's too bright.

Me: But with reflective losses the reflected sun is less bright than the real sun.

He: Yeah, you got a good point, but I tell you it's just too bright.

Me: Maybe, if you have both the real and the reflected sun shining, but this spot is otherwise in shadow.

He: Well, you'll see.

This was the first man I'd ever met competent to discuss the sun as if it were simply a fixture, a huge incandescent bulb. He only dealt with it because his job required it. I was able to look at the sun through his eyes. I saw that except for habit the sun would never be accepted today. Sure there would be a few fans, but not enough to even test-market it - think of the glare, the sun burn, its unpredictable appearance. How many people die every day from accident because the sun gets in their eyes? Mother Nature would be swamped with lawsuits.

Is the unnecessary use of electricity in endless rows of fluorescent lights like the self-imposed exercise of someone doing calisthenics? Are we training for an adventure to come, where there will be no sun? Will we move underground into enormous clammy galleries or set off in space through the dark on the way to a new star?

Is our society more interested in expensive photovoltaic power plants than cheap skylights because solar power plants could be switched to nuclear power without the public knowing?

I found in investigating these stores with their endless fluorescent ceilings I began to invest in the problem, savoring the insult of each new fluorescent bulb glowing during the bright day. When finally, on my third visit, I overcame the fluorescent spell and protested to a store manager, something in me was delighted at his guarded hostility. For a moment I thought he might throw me out of Walmart for my impertinence in questioning their judgement bathing their customers in the 60 cycle electric illumination and refusing the sun. The tense moment passed like a huge ocean swell that you anticipate breaking in a wave, but merely lifts you up and lets you down. As we sank in a trough the manager confided that, although helpless to use the sun here, he had added skylights to his own house and that he had suspected I was snooping for their competitor K-Mart.

Further upsetting in my quest to corner the fluorescent conspirators in their acres of chain stores was a visit to the Price Club. The Albuquerque Price Club has 3 per cent of the roof in skylights. That should be light enough on this sunny day, but here all the lights were on anyway. I found the manager and more-or-less demanded that he turn the lights off. No, he wouldn't. He pointed to the new addition where he had been able to double the skylights (but the electric lights were on there too) and explained that all the new stores were like this new addition. Phoenix, L. A., Denver - all skylights, no need for daytime electric lights. But did they leave their electric lights on anyway, as he did?

There must be a fluorescent conspiracy, but as I discovered when I thought I had trapped a conspirator by the coffee shop at Walmart, the conspiracy's energy and information are in waves, not objects. When you counter a conspirator, you catch nothing, since the problem is the wave, caused by a distant economic storm, not the store manager who merely rides the wave. Everything is still a mystery. Why would the Price Club manager pay $10 per hour to keep a light switch on, even though the store is flooded with sunlight?