Holiday lights

The city of Aspen manages the iconic light display along the downtown pedestrian malls. Beginning Thursday, about half the lights will be set to a timer that turns them off at 2 a.m. to save energy. The lights on the walking mall are shown here in a 2018 file photo.

The city of Aspen is responsible for installing and maintaining the light displays that entertain locals and visitors alike throughout the holiday season. About half of the strings of lights are connected to photovoltaic power and are switched on automatically when the sun goes down, and turn themselves off at dawn.

But Aspen Mayor Torre requested this week that the other 50 percent stop flickering well before sunrise in order to reduce energy consumption by adding cheer to the empty early morning streets.

Public Works Director Scott Miller said when Torre first approached him with the request on Monday, he was not sure that the city was able to reconfigure the set-up, as many of the lights are plugged into the street lamp conduit. He said those lights must stay on in the dark.

“The streetlights are on a photo cell, and for safety you have to have them on sundown to sun up,” Miller said.

But, after consulting with the park’s department’s Matt Kuhn, he found that this wasn’t the case for all of the public holiday lights. Some are on a timer and had traditionally been set to go off to coincide with the photovoltaic system. But Miller said he saw no reason they couldn’t be shut off sooner in order to be more in lockstep with the city’s environmental consciousness efforts.

“To be honest it’s good to think about it. It is a way to walk to walk, and why not?” Miller said.

Miller said it would be too costly to rewire all of the lights that are powered off the photovoltaic system, but for those that are already on timers, they can make the change right away.

Kuhn’s team oversees the lights along Aspen’s walking mall, those surrounding the Wheeler Opera House, Rubey Park, the Red Brick and strung up in the roundabout. The team installs them every year to be ready the day after Thanksgiving and then removes them all in April each year.

He said that while many cities participate in some sort of holiday light program, Aspen’s whimsical color displays throughout town are distinct.

“For our town, it adds a holiday cheer and theme that is unique. We definitely take it up a notch from a lot of cities,” Kuhn said .

Each year the team works to improve the display. This year on the mall they focused on the pedestrian experience by wrapping tree trunks instead of the canopy, and made sure all of the white lights emitted a warm tone instead of the blue tone typical of LEDs

“We enjoy it, and strive to make it interesting and challenging and festive,” Kuhn said.

For environmental reasons, the city switched to 100 percent LED lights years ago, but he said the timing of the display had carried over mostly due to habit.

“When you are doing something for a long time, sometimes you don't always think of a way to change it or make it better,” Kuhn said. “I think it’s a logical change, it’s green and it's a good thing to do.”

At this point in the season, most outlets and receptacles are buried under snow, and sealed in waterproofing. But by 2 a.m. Thursday morning, all of the lights that are connected to timers will go dark.

Right now, with aging infrastructure and a variety of power supplied to the massive display, Kuhn says his team spends a lot of time just making sure the lights are on, let alone turn off on time. The city is undergoing a long-term public process to update Aspen’s iconic walking malls. Kuhn said better ways of managing the light display is part of the discussion among updating other utilities under the cobblestone bricks during the renovations.

Having the infrastructure in place to support this kind of thing is definitely part of this discussion,” Kuhn said.

He said his office will track some of the changes that were made this year, and continue to implement new strategies in the future to stay in line with community values.

“We’ve got good momentum in our department to keep making it interesting and festive, and at the same time, recognize the energy consumption and be environmental and make changes accordingly,” he said.

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.