Utne Blogs > Environment

Can Energy-Draining Escalators Be Green?

 by Hannah Lobel

Tags: Environment, energy, escalators, green technology, energy efficiency, Next American City, New York Times,

Escalator“It’s a 9/11 thing.” 

We’re all well-accustomed to hearing this rote justification as we stuff toiletries into a tiny Ziploc bag at airport security or question the aesthetic judgment behind the makeshift, gigantic cement pylons encircling downtown buildings. But here’s an unexpected use of this most 21st-century of mantras: The response above came from an escalator company representative explaining why the firm couldn’t give a reporter from Next American City information about their products’ energy use and pricing.

The industry has good cause to be cagey. These icons of modern ease are dinosaurs when it comes to energy efficiency. As Next American City reports, “[t]he national energy use of escalators is estimated at 2.6 billion kilowatt hours per year, equivalent to powering 375,000 houses.” That’s a lot of wattage for devices that keep draining electricity even when they’re not being used (which is much of the time).

There are some attempts to green escalators. Next American City notes the efforts of J. Dunlop Inc., which has applied for a patent on a design for a plastic elevator step whose lighter weight would require less energy than the current heavy aluminum versions.

The article does not make mention of “variable-speed escalators”—those that stay still or move very slowly until someone in need of a lift climbs aboard. New York City is in the midst of transitioning a handful of subway stations to this more energy-efficient version. But, as the New York Times reports, the escalators hit a few bumps on their inaugural voyages: only 22 of the 35 escalators slated to shift to variable speed at four stations were functioning properly by showtime on Monday.

An earlier piece announcing the initiative notes that such technology hasn’t yet been approved by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. (New York City Transit had to get a work-around OK from state code enforcers for the experimental program.) The “sleep mode” or “intermittent operation” technology is used, however, in Europe, Asia, Canada, and Israel.

So perhaps that’s one greener option for stateside escalators in the future. Or, there’s always the other route: Take the stairs. As one mechanical engineer puts it to Next American City: "If you have a place like a mall, you could install an elevator for the elderly and the disabled and tell everyone else to take a walk. It’s not the kind of machine that you can make practical. Because it’s not."

Image by Jan the manson, licensed under Creative Commons.