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Warm glow of Berlin's 'beautiful' gas streetlights set to fade

Most of Berlin's gaslights, those distinctive street jewels that have spread a gentle golden glow for more than a century-and-a-half, are set to be removed. NBC's Andy Eckardt reports

BERLIN — As a capital city, Berlin has endured more than its fair share of division over the years. Now new battle lines are being drawn over what some see as a fight for the city's character.

The conflict began when City Hall announced its intention to phase out the vast majority of Berlin's historic gas lamps as part of an ambitious project to make the city carbon-neutral by 2050.

With nearly 43,000 gas-powered streetlights, Berlin has more than any other city in the world. In fact, more than one in six in the city are gas.

Some date back to the 19th century; others were erected immediately after World War II as the occupying Soviet forces made restoring light to the devastated city a priority.

In recent years, guided tours have been run to picturesque areas, with sightseers attracted by the distinctive warm, yellowish glow of gas lamps.

Pollution, expense
Think Beacon Hill in Boston or San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter — but on a much larger scale — and cue the outrage.

But with annual running costs for fuel and maintenance as much as $700 for some lamp models, and carbon dioxide emissions almost ten times that of an equivalent electric light, there are now strong financial and environmental incentives to replace gas with electric alternatives.

Pete Jeary/NBC News

With nearly 43,000 gas-powered street lamps, Berlin has more than any other town or city in the world.

The city's current modernization program (link in German) will see 8,000 highway lamps, mostly dating from the early 1950s, replaced with new electric lights.

City authorities say the figures speak for themselves.

 The energy used by those 8,000 gas lamps could power 100,000 electric lights. And replacing them would cut energy costs by 90 percent, reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 9,200 tons per year and save a chunk of the $1.6 million spent each year just on replacement gas mantles.

Petra Rohland, spokeswoman for Berlin's Department of Urban Development, said the current refit would be complete by end of 2016 — and would recoup the cost within nine years.

All but a few of the city's gas-powered lamps will eventually go.

"Five percent of the historic gas lights, especially the candelabra, will be kept as originals in the future," Rohland said.

'Knock down the Brandenburg Gate'
It's a future that fills some Berliners like Paul Harrison with dread.

Harrison is a member of a growing band of preservation societies who oppose the wholesale replacement of gas lights.

He challenges the environmental and financial arguments put forward by the city to justify the changes.

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"If we're just talking about saving money, we could knock down the Brandenburg Gate," he said ironically. "After all, that costs a lot to keep going, to keep clean."

Harrison's group, Gaslight Culture, is calling for the dismantling to be suspended - and for talks between all interested parties.

Pete Jeary/NBC News

Annual running costs for a gas-powered lamp can be as much as $700, and CO2 emissions almost ten times that of an equivalent electric light.

"We haven't started to explore the possibilities, such as different forms of financing or even sponsorship of streets or districts," he said.

Harrison deplored what he described as “the rejection of a working system.” And the replacement LEDs would be “prohibitively expensive” and “far from convincing” as alternatives.

'A living light'
Such rejection of new technology would be a disappointment to Andre Braun, who has spent years developing LED illumination that mimics the color of gas light (in German).

For Braun, whose workshop is on the same site as the former Berlin gas plant where his father once worked, the search for the perfect replacement is nothing short of a crusade.

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The way he talks about working with gas is reminiscent of how a fisherman might talk of the sea.

"It's so very difficult to work with," Braun said. "The extremes of temperature make it a constant battle ... unlike electricity, which is a dead light, gas gives a living light. But that's tough to recreate in an LED."

"Some people think I'm crazy to spend all this time trying to replicate the look of the gas lamp," he said. "But they are beautiful; gas lights have no glare, you can look right into them."

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