The double avenues either side of the busy Champs Elysées are decorated with countless tiny pinpricks of light. Viewed from the centre of the avenue (and the safety of a traffic island) the lights are overwhelmed by the endless stream of car headlights. At the outer limits, the shop lights dominate but here, in the middle of one of the avenues the effect is…. what?
‘Magical’ is overworked and doesn’t apply, unless you’re very young or just arrived from the deepest countryside. Pretty doesn’t seem the right word for something that stretches so far. Beautiful? Well, filter out the advertising banners for the sponsors, IKEA, ignore the distractions of the shop windows, focus your eyes on the far end of the avenue and yes, I think ‘beautiful’ will do.
Of course, these decorations need electricity and that’s something we should be using with care these days. For the last four years all the city’s seasonal decorations have used economical LEDs; this year the illuminations are at their most ecological yet. From an extraordinary high of 480,000 kWh in 2006, the six week consumption of the Champs Elysées lights has dropped each year, thanks to the change to LEDs, use of reflective garlands among the lights and reduced hours of illumination. The lights used to be wired and switched with the street lights, so they stayed on until morning. Now on a separate circuit, they are turned off soon after midnight. This year’s consumption of electricity will be a little under 11,000 kWh, around the same as the annual consumption of a Parisian family of four. That’s still a lot of electricity, but it’s a reduction of over 97%.
To further reduce the draw on the national grid, a 20m wind turbine and an array of photovoltaic panels have been installed on a traffic island at the end of the avenue. Passers-by can do their bit, generating electricity by pedaling on twenty five static bikes or running in a giant hamster wheel. Half an hour’s pedaling makes one tree sparkle for two hours. The sponsors have arranged to buy in the necessary top-up power from renewable sources.
There’s no doubt that seasonal decorations have been co-opted by commerce, to illuminate a season of consumer spending, but lights and shopping aren’t inextricably linked. Lighting up the dark days of the end of the year is a symbolic and very human impulse.
More modest decorations lend an air of festivity to the main streets of different quartiers throughout Paris. By encouraging residents to stroll in the streets in the evenings and to linger outside corner cafés, the lights are playing a part in strengthening the life of local communities. If they do that in a way that is environmentally sustainable, what’s not to like?