Design by Kristina Miesel.

In light of the University of Michigan’s commitment to achieve carbon neutrality for both on-campus and purchased-power emissions by 2040, community members are considering how the University can introduce more energy-efficient lighting procedures.

Multiple buildings and common areas across campus close each night and remain inaccessible to students, staff and faculty, but continue to be lit with the same light intensity as during business hours, according to Kevin Morgan, manager of the Energy Management Program at the Office of Campus Sustainability. Individual students or staff cannot turn these lights off — they are generally managed by facilities staff in each building.

Electricity generated to illuminate these interiors on campus falls under Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. This means that emissions associated with lighting are produced by electricity from both the University’s own power plant and purchases from other energy utilities.

Why does the University leave these lights on? And are there ways the campus could be lit in a more efficient way? 

Safety, campus environment and architecture

It’s unclear exactly how much lighting accounts for electricity usage and carbon emissions from buildings on campus. The U.S. Energy Information Administration cited data from a survey indicating lighting accounts for 17% of the electricity consumed in U.S. commercial buildings, but the survey does not break down how much of that demand comes from lights left on beyond business hours. 

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen said the amount of electricity used for lighting varies across buildings, making it difficult to quantify the impact overnight lights have on energy consumption.

“Energy use from lighting can vary based on a building’s design, age, lighting code at the time of construction or renovation, and lighting system updates,” Broekhuizen said.

Morgan said the primary reason lights are left on in buildings is for safety purposes. He said even if a building is closed to the public, these “uncontrollable lights” need to remain on so maintenance facilities staff can safely enter or exit the buildings if they need to address emergency electrical issues.

“By code, we need to assume someone is in there, and we need to make sure they can get out safely,” Morgan said.

Morgan referred to the Michigan Building Code, which requires common spaces to provide a minimum amount of “emergency lighting” for individuals to traverse through spaces such as hallways and stairs. These rules apply to recently constructed buildings but are not necessarily required of older buildings on campus. 

The code also mandates that lights remain active 24/7, meaning a minimum amount of light is required in on-campus common areas even when the building is closed to the public.

Unless a building is being decommissioned, such as being set for a renovation or demolition, Morgan said the University legally cannot deactivate lighting systems for common spaces, even if nobody is inhabiting them.

Broekhuizen said the University is open to energy conservation suggestions from the community.

“We appreciate the U-M community helping us to identify ways to reduce our energy use, and in the case of lighting, noting when lights should be turned off if not necessary for safety or wayfinding,” Broekhuizen said.

CSG Vice President Carla Voigt, an Engineering senior, told The Daily in a message that the University could do more to turn these lights off.

“I think as many lights as possible should be turned off to reduce light pollution and energy waste,” Voigt said. “The safety of our students is incredibly important. However, there are many places on campus with lights on that aren’t necessary for safety, such as inside empty buildings or other non-populated areas.”

Voigt was previously a campaign manager for the CSG party Represent Michigan, which proposed turning off the lights at the Michigan Stadium as a sustainability measure. The stadium’s lights remain on overnight, and athletics officials have previously stated the lights need to stay on for “safety and security purposes.”

While building codes mandate many spaces remain illuminated, Morgan noted some lights may be deliberately left on as a choice of the building designer to highlight architectural features. He suggested that lights might be left on at Ross to emphasize the glass box design features.

In an email to The Daily, Grant Faber, a U-M alum who contributed to the Student Advisory Panel of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality and has worked in sustainability and carbon capture research, said lights may often be left on to create the feeling of a living campus environment to community members.  

“More lights, even in unused buildings, might make people more comfortable or give a certain ‘aura’ to the campus that is worth the wasted money and energy, at least to the people making these decisions,” Faber said. “In this case, it will be hard to change, and this is where culture and behavior change strategies will come into play.”

Courtesy of Arjun Thakkar.

Lighting and energy conservation

There are multiple energy conservation measures that increase energy efficiency, such as installing LED lights to replace fluorescent lights, which consume more electricity. Morgan said fluorescent lights are currently the most common type of light used on campus. 

Morgan said the University generally requires new construction projects to utilize LED lighting, and multiple University units have been updating their lighting fixtures in recent years. For the lights that are required to be left on, Morgan said these efficiency improvements could be valuable in reducing energy consumption. 

“We know that that light needs to be delivered to that space, so we’ll do our best to make it as efficient as possible,” Morgan said. “That’s the best we can do.”

Adam Simon, professor of earth and environmental sciences, said another option to reduce unnecessary lighting is to install sensors that turn lights off when there’s no movement in the room. Many classrooms and offices already contain sensors that perform this function. Simon said sensors help the University “circumvent human behavior” when individuals forget to turn off lights.

“What you’re doing there is you’re bypassing having students do it,” Simon said. “You don’t need humans to make that decision. It’s just done by the silent hand behind the scenes.”

To pay for these kinds of upgrades, the University proposed a revolving energy fund as part of its carbon neutrality announcement. The fund would allow the University to finance investments in energy conservation, such as LED lighting and motion sensors, and regain the funds through the cost savings generated by these investments. 

Simon said using this approach was “low-hanging fruit” that could also create funds to go toward spending for students, including scholarships. He noted that Harvard University had implemented a similar energy fund years ago.

“The revolving energy fund certainly is something that myself and many colleagues on campus really advocated for, because other universities have quantified cost savings … (and have) reduced annual energy costs,” Simon said. “That allows you to have more discretionary revenue for other things that benefit students, and you reduce emissions.” 

University President Mark Schlissel announced on May 20 the University would commit $25 million for energy conservation measures across all three campuses. Morgan said the University will be announcing conservation projects in the coming weeks and that a majority of those efforts would involve lighting. 

While maximizing the efficiency of lighting would conserve energy and contribute to the University’s carbon neutrality goals, Morgan said lighting remains “a small piece of the puzzle” since the electricity usage for lighting is relatively small compared to other expenditures. 

“Everybody has a parent that’s told them to turn the lights off when they leave the room,” Morgan said. “I do with my own kids. Unfortunately, it’s just not enough to get where we want to be in terms of our goals and our carbon neutrality pursuit.”

Daily Staff Reporter Arjun Thakkar can be reached at

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article said the University has committed to carbon neutrality by 2040. The article been changed to clarify that the commitments by 2040 are only for on-campus and purchased power emissions.