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The lights are on… but no one’s in

London offices at night with lights on

Offices, retailers, banks, there are many culprits leaving lights on unnecessarily. When did this become acceptable, and how does it sit with energy price rises, dwindling natural resources and the Green Deal?

After meeting up with a few friends, I wandered out of a slightly grotty central London pub into the light. Bathing in the incandescent glory that cascaded from the buildings around me, I felt like I was in a tanning booth or a summer Spanish beach front.

It was 11pm, mid-November.

Don’t worry; this isn’t a rant about Christmas lights (which are as tasteless and essential as bad panto) – but it is a rant – against office lights. From shops to banks, estate agents to law firms, leaving your lights on at night seems to be in vogue.

Let’s get statistical

In its 2011 report on Energy Consumption in the UK, the Department of Energy and Climate Change analyses energy use within the service sector.

In 2009, commercial offices used the equivalent of 2,848,000 kWh on lighting alone. Retail facilities made that look like peanuts, consuming the equivalent of 13,475,000 kWh to keep stores lit. To put that into perspective, it’s about the same electricity as around 20,400 homes would use every year on lighting alone.

More goes towards electricity than natural gas, oil and solid fuel combined. The total electricity consumption across the service sector (including schools, sports and leisure, government and warehouses) is 95,600,000 kWh. The vast majority of this goes towards normal day-to-day use – although even then there’s a lot of waste – but anything we can do to cut this figure would surely help.

Admittedly, lights from office blocks and the high street at night have other uses. Turn them all off for instance and your street gets a lot darker, and consequently the council’s street light bill could go up. Likewise, building sites often leave the lights on at night for safety and security reasons. I’m not blind to this; but companies shouldn’t use it as a cop-out.

Businesses aren’t blind either. Research from the Carbon Trust last year revealed that rising energy prices, along with taxes, are the biggest worries facing British businesses, although predictably it’s in sectors like manufacturing where that concern is greatest.

The flick of a switch

What really annoys me is the feeling that the lights are often left on for commercial reasons. There’s a Foxtons estate agents near me, which not only leaves the lights on in its giant glass box at night but also has rolling news on a huge flat screen TV blaring through the night. Does anyone really watch it?

Reassuringly, it sounds like the government not only recognises the problem, but is also aware of how easy it is to find a solution. Here’s a quote from the DECC report I referred to earlier:

‘The non-domestic lighting and appliances sector presents opportunities for relatively quick, significant reductions in demand.’

And that’s the point. We’re not talking about wind farms, solar panels, or nuclear power stations. We’re talking about flicking a switch.

John Symons says:
23 November 2011

Lights left on in offices may be a sign of corporate “presentism”, but I would not like to hit them with a beefed up Working Hours Directive. Security is a cop out. Is it too much to expect security guards to flick switches on and off as they go? A flashing torch in a dark room or an unexpected light turned on could positively alert them to an intruder. Personally I would ban lit shop window displays when shops are shut. While I hate TV and internet adverts I presume that they cannot consume much power. If we want to buy something, we go to shops in opening hours, or online, to research it. We should pay councils what we need to for street lighting, not rely on inefficient third party background light sources to achieve the same objective.


Do you have an adopted son called Michael Symons?
He would like to get in contact with you please.


Hi there NathanCasey, we’ll be in touch by email shortly.

John Symons, if you would like to get in touch then please do so via ‘Get in Touch’ here https://conversation.which.co.uk/contact-us/



Thanks Nick for highlighting this pointless waste of energy.

My local Lidl store has all the lights on long after the store closes at 8pm. The store looks deserted, so I don’t think the lights are on to allow staff to refill the shelves.

Where I used to work, many lights and computers were left on overnight. I would like the worst offenders named and shamed, and fined if they continue to waste energy.


I asked a checkout assistant about the lights in Lidl. She said they used to switch them off but confirmed they were left on after the store was closed. I will contact Head Office and ask why they are wasting energy.


I tried to email Lidl, but had to use one of these stupid Web-based forms that make it difficult to keep a copy of correspondence.

I have just had a call from their Head Office in Edinburgh, to say that Lidl takes energy saving very seriously and also that lights left on cost the company money. They are going to call my local store and speak to the manager.


All night lighting can be added to open doors on shops in winter as a major waste of power.
The potential savings probably make domestic savings look small.

We really need a major campaign to change businesses culture on this issue.


Having done a few calculations – I’m wrong ! Possible savings are small compared to possible domestic savings.

Even if the service sector saved 25% this would only be equivalent to a 1 kWh per house saving per year or 0.02% of average household energy usage per year.


Thanks for your comments rarrar. As you rightly point out it’s nothing compared to domestic energy use, which is rightly the focus of energy-saving campaigns, but we’re still talking about millions of kw/h being wasted. I’ve also focussed the figures on lighting, but computers and televisions are being left on too.