Three Cheers for Holiday Lighting

Guest post by Robert Bradley of Master Resource

christmas lights by Paul Keleher.

House in Boston with 250,000 lights – see Boston Globe story here -Photo by Paul Keleher

Environmentalists critical of electrified America must have mixed emotions this time of the year. It may be the season of good cheer and goodwill toward all, but it is also the time of the most conspicuous of energy consumption. America the Beautiful is at her best in December when billions of tiny stringed light bulbs turn the mundane or darkness itself into magnificent beauty and celebration. Holiday lighting is a great social offering—a positive externality in the jargon of economics—given by many to all.

While energy doomsayers such as Paul Ehrlich have riled against “garish commercial Christmas displays,” today’s headline grabbers (Grist, Climate Progress, where are you?) have not engaged a public debate over the issue. [At least one enviro blogger has, however, as have SANTA (Sustainability Action Network and Toy Alliance) and the Energy Justice Network)].

Yet holiday lighting is a glaring exception to their goal of reducing discretionary energy usage to help save the world. If holiday energy guzzling is forgiven, why not excuse outdoor heating and cooling, one-switch centralized lighting, and instant-on appliances that “leak” electricity, not to mention SUVs? Prancing around to turn on individual lights or waiting for the paper copier to warm up wastes the scarcest and one truly depleting resource: a person’s time. Surely extra energy use for comfort and convenience has priority over purely celebratory uses of energy.

What about the holiday humbug that celebratory electricity depletes future fossil-fuel supplies, fouls the air, and destabilizes the climate? Good tidings abound!

World oil reserves are over 20 times greater now than they were when record-keeping began in the 1940s; world gas reserves are almost four times greater than they were in the 1960s; world coal reserves have risen fourfold since 1950. Political events can drive supply down and prices up, but the raw mineral resource base is prolific—and expanding in economic terms thanks to an inexhaustible supply of human ingenuity and exploratory capital.

Record energy consumption has been accompanied by improving air quality. Urban air quality is significantly better today than in the 1970s in the United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that air emissions of the criteria pollutants declined by 60 percent from 1970, while energy usage increased by a third. Further air emission reductions are expected, but it will not be accomplished by forcing higher prices or inconvenience levied on consumers. It will be accomplished with market incentives, technological improvement, and regulation based on sound science, not alarmism.

Should good citizens think twice about holiday lighting given global warming and other suspected climate change from increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide? Hardly. A moderately warmer, wetter world, whether natural or anthropogenic, such as experienced in the 20th century, is a better world. Carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels “greens” the biosphere through the well-documented carbon fertilization effect. But most importantly, the wealth created from affordable, plentiful energy provides the primary means for societies to improve the environment. In the final analysis, wealth is environmental health, which explains why increasing energy usage and environmental improvement have gone hand in hand in the Western world.

There is much to be thankful for this holiday season with our energy economy. But thoughts about the less fortunate should be with us too. An estimated 1.5 billion people do not have electricity for lighting, heating, cooling, cooking, or water purification. A Christmas tree for us is likely to be firewood for those living in energy poverty. For these people, there could be no greater holiday gift than affordable electricity itself, explaining why the developing world has flatly rejected proposals from environmental elites to forsake future energy usage in the quixotic quest to “stabilize climate.”

Energy consumption is good—for comfort, convenience, and even celebration. May one and all in good conscience enliven this holiday season with lights aplenty. With conventional fuels and energy technologies rapidly improving, Americans can look forward to even more energetic celebrations and shared goodwill in the holidays ahead.

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Henry chance
December 25, 2009 8:53 pm

Remember this is at night Solar doesn’t work at night. Wind is very unreliable. We can depend on coal.

December 25, 2009 8:54 pm

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all.
I hope those in government and in private life that wish to return us to the dark ages fail and allow the engineers and producers of energy to continue to produce energy in abundance for the world to enjoy.

P Walker
December 25, 2009 8:57 pm

As usual , Robert Bradley has it right .

photon without a Higgs
December 25, 2009 9:03 pm

Use as much lighting as you want. It’s your electric bill. If more lights at Christmas make you happy then put them up.

Evan Jones
December 25, 2009 9:15 pm

We are far more powerful than a hundred years ago. If we drive the economy forward, we will become incredibly more wealthy and powerful. We will then be able to solve problems in a way undreamed of today. We must not kill our wealth — if we do, we will not only fail to solve our current problems (environmental and other), but we lose our future.

December 25, 2009 9:15 pm

Robert Bradley: In the final analysis, wealth is environmental health, which explains why increasing energy usage and environmental improvement have gone hand in hand in the Western world.
As a gathering storm of us have been trying to hammer into the thick heads of the woe is ussers for some time now.
Merry Christmas, all.

December 25, 2009 9:22 pm

Except if you live in California, where they have misallocated the hyrdro resources and banned all new energy production plants.
But then, nobody ever said Sacramento was the sharpest tack in the west, a fact not lost on Key Lay and the Enron gang.

December 25, 2009 9:26 pm

I have only the following words for Paul Ehrlich: ” Please find a telephone pole. [snip]” I do not do xmas lighting personally, and the inflated Santas, etc. can be a bit tacky, but who elected you scoutmaster? Bugger off slime.
Personally, I do a significant amount of conservation in lighting. The light I am using at my computer table is a surface mount led setup that draws all of 7.5 watts. More than adequate to read with and all the rest. At $32 with a MTF of 200K hours its probably a bargain in the long run. Powered by my solar panel array to boot. But I have a great dislike for the people who would run other people’s lives. [snip].

December 25, 2009 9:29 pm

@Henry chance It works at night for me fairly well. But then again not everyone has a 50KWH battery bank.

Richard K
December 25, 2009 9:37 pm

Great article! It did make me think of the future. The quest is to find the cheapest, most abundant and eco-friendly energy sources. Maybe you guys could do a post for the new year on future alternatives. Whatever happened to fusion – the last I heard was back in the 90’s. What about tidal flow? Readers of this site are quite aware of the pitfalls of windmill and the current state of solar. What is out on the horizon is my question? Happy New Year to All!

Douglas DC
December 25, 2009 9:43 pm

My lights are lighting the Foggy 20F night here in NE Oregon.
They will take my Christmas lights and my F-150(that has been daily
in 4×4 since the first of the Month) from my cold,dead,fingers…

December 25, 2009 9:45 pm

I agree with the story. Go crazy with lights if you want to pay the bills. They look pretty. We have a few lights at our house. However, here is a picture related to the story that makes me cranky. I took it Christmas Eve..last night.
So why I am grumpy about it? Polar bears. Penguins. Awwwwww.
It is at the local college, a self-anointed, bastion of “green,” where students are brainwashed about AGW! (I spoke to an environmental class there two years ago. My first question was: What causes the climate to change? They had been studying climate with their “professor” for weeks and the first answer I got was “carbon dioxide.” Bah. ☺ ☺ )
And yet they have the audacity to flaunt 80,000 lights (I don’t care if they are LEDs) and tell us how green the college is. And they used polar bears and penguins to boot. Bah! ☺ ☺ I am amazed they did not have melting ice caps.
I do not object to the lights … it was a nice display. But I object that they are put up by an institution that claims to be green, has a wind technology program and brainwashes their students about AGW. Utter hypocrisy. THAT is what makes me cranky. Maybe it is just me.
Bah! Humbug! ☺ ☺

December 25, 2009 9:48 pm

Wind power is still Kicking butt here in Kansas, with these blizzard winds and blowing snow.
I put up no Xmass lights, and use about 650 KWH per month.
Small farm, horses, organic garden, on line 24/7, kids and two grand kids, two yard lights, no cable TV.

December 25, 2009 10:17 pm

two grand kids
How do you get kids so cheap?
I figure mine cost me $100K each. Worth every penny.

December 25, 2009 10:18 pm

Grist, Climate Progress etc. don’t dare to attack the Christmas light and energy wasting because their goal is nothing less than a new religion – with the future ritual burning of a billion of tons of oil just to celebrate Al Gore on each anniversary of An Inconvenient Truth.
So they have to preserve some respect to the “previous” religions because this is where they are trying to get new members of their new postmodern religion. More generally, they’re just doing some ideological P.R. rather than rational efforts to reduce anything.

December 25, 2009 10:37 pm

That’s uncanny. It looks exactly like our house down here in Louisiana! Except our house is smaller, and mostly made of wood. And shaped differently. And doesn’t have all of those lights on it.

p.g.sharrow "PG"
December 25, 2009 10:48 pm

Cheap dependable energy supply is the foundation of our civilization. Only a well powered nation can be wealthy and enviromently clean.
Never cared for coal, too dirty and hard to clean up after. It is cheap and plentiful.
Nuclear fission is well known and the present best solution for now. Fusion as is presently pursued is a waste of time and money. When I was young and studied fusion it was obvious that they were following the wrong thread. After 50 years and 100’s of $billions they are projecting useful fusion in 50 years.
Solar, wind, wave, geothermo are all nice additives but not the best cost effective large scale solution to the real needs of energy for all the world.
The present level of energy use and population size of the planet allow for a doubleing of knowlage every 7 years, and the internet is a great acelerator of this progress.
When the net covers the world, the old ways of controlling the worlds population will end. Knowlage is power. As we are seeing in climategate / U.N. , their neat package is coming apart at the seams.

John J.
December 25, 2009 11:08 pm

The Willamette Valley in Oregon has maybe the dreariest winters in the world. The more Christmas lights the better.
My goal someday is to be visible to the astronauts on the ISS, although I might have to leave the lights up until July 4 when the sky finally clears.

December 25, 2009 11:37 pm

It truly is as bad as the seventies. Back then my mom lived out on Long Island and a joy at Christmas was to see all the houses decorated with Christmas lights as I looked out the window of the L.I.R.R. on my way to Babylon.
Then Jimmy Carter said ‘no Christmas lights’ ’cause we have to save energy and the joyous vista disappeared.
(When I was really little our family would drive through local cemeteries to see the decorations, lights, and creches. I guess that’s long gone too.)

December 26, 2009 12:32 am

One of the nicest things about Christmas is walking around at night and seeing all the lights that people have put up. The energy saving message doesn’t seem to have gotten very far in Kamloops as the part of town where I live is quite heavily decorated with lights. The house across the street from me has one of the larges displays in town and is more impressive than the photo at the top of this thread. Everyone needs a hobby I guess and the woman that does this display starts putting up the lights after halloween and is still adding to the display a few days before Christmas. She went overboard once LED lights came out as one of the limiting factors in her display was the cost of power. It’s nice to see and the only thing that bothers me about it is the traffic on the street as people come from all over town to have a look at the lights.
At this time of year the length of the day at my latitude is about 7.5 hours. It’s also -10 C outside and so the heat is on and the lights are on most of the time. I can afford the cost of electricity easily and am not about to sit around in the dark. I suspect that using electric lights is significantly less polluting than using candles and kerosene lanterns (have a gas lantern for emergencies and camping).
At this time of year one realizes how important cheap and reliable energy supplies are to ones survival. My wife and I have been arguing for years about whether I should buy a gasoline powered generator (she thinks it will be just one more of my survival related items taking up room in the garage) but I do have a workshop with a wood stove and a large supply of firewood that could be used if both the electricity and natural gas were suddenly unavailable during the winter. Much of Canada is uninhabitable without the large scale use of energy in the winter.
One measure of a civilizations technical advancement is the energy density of the energy sources it uses. Nuclear power has a very high energy density and a far smaller environmental impact than attempting to get the same amount of power from windmills or solar power. Wind power became obsolete when coal fueled steam engines provided a much larger amount of power than wind could as well as providing power on demand, not just when the wind blew. Solar power is nice if you’ve got the money to build a system. Steve Ciarcia wrote a couple of articles in Circuit Cellar Ink about his solar power system and I suspect that he was motivated more by the technologic challenge aspect of constructing such a system rather than by practical considerations. I don’t have an extra $50 K at this time to cover my roof with solar panels and to add a massive battery bank to my house, but would immediately do so if I had the money as this provides some degree of energy independence (as well as a really fun power electronics project). For someone who lives on a remote farm then by all means put up a windmill but the large windmills being pushed by “environmentalists” are orders of magnitude more destructive to the environment than one large nuclear plant.
Tokamak based fusion has been disappointing but I still think that fusion power will be the way to go in the future. There are alternative means of carrying out fusion and I’m hoping these will be available in the next 10-20 years.
The problem we will have to deal with in the next decade is to try to stop the idiotic low energy density power projects that I suspect likely use more energy in their construction than they actually produce. I like having reliable electrical power and don’t want power grid instability as a result of adding wind generated power to an electrical grid that has been incredibly reliable thus far.

P Gosselin
December 26, 2009 12:40 am

Or, we could celebrate a green Christmas like the green utopians would have us do. Here’s how wonderful that would be:

P Gosselin
December 26, 2009 12:42 am

Or just google “North Korea at night” to see the famous south-north contrast.

Steinar Midtskogen
December 26, 2009 12:56 am

While energy is a limited resource that shouldn’t be wasted (regardless of one’s view on its effect on climate), I’m more concerned about the light pollution from such lighting. Yet another contribution to killing the night sky. And things overdone aren’t pretty either.

Louis Hissink
December 26, 2009 1:01 am

The Boston Globe reports on a house with 250,000 light globes………….a global report?
And yes it is, as Bullwinkle might say, a bad pun.

December 26, 2009 2:00 am

I don’t believe in AGW. I don’t believe in a mystical deity either.
Dressing up a house – or whole cities – in gaudy lights to mark the birth of a supposed superhuman two thousand years ago makes as much sense as subjecting the world population to penury in order to combat the imagined threats of climate change. It’s the triumph of myth over reason.
Light pollution has its comforts. By blotting out the night sky, we can conceal our insignificance among the stars.
Religion and the IPCC share a common motive: to inflate the importance of humankind.

December 26, 2009 2:00 am

Slightly OT but an interesting find at the BBC
ShrNfr (21:29:20) :
@Henry chance It works at night for me fairly well. But then again not everyone has a 50KWH battery bank. -LEAD ACID?
That’ll be banned as too polluting in the Brave New World.

D. Patterson
December 26, 2009 2:43 am

Do you suppose Professor Peabody and his boy Sherman would describe today’s Climate Change, also known as Global Warming, as a…Fractured Fairy Tale?

December 26, 2009 4:12 am

Christmas lights are a bit like fireworks. Scrooge will complain it is money up in smoke. However so is a good party. You don’t do it to make money. You do it to rejoice!
Of course, you need to respect the feelings of your neighbor. And there is always some neighbor who will gripe your Christmas lights are too bright, your fireworks are too loud, and your party is so joyous that they must be a party-poop and call the police.
I try to respect my neighbor by turning off my Christmas lights at bedtime, and by only having fireworks once or twice a year. However when such sour-pusses try to make all joy illegal, and to make any sort of party against the law, they attempt the impossible. The Grinch cannot steal Christmas.

December 26, 2009 4:18 am

Next year, I’ll be starting up a Christmas Light Credit trading scheme. I will purchase credits from North Korea and make them available in the west. For what it costs to feed the average North Korean for a day (about 35 cents US) you can have, Conscience Free, all the Christmas lights you want. Watch for the ads.

Jimmy Haigh
December 26, 2009 5:17 am

“Louis Hissink (01:01:03) :
The Boston Globe reports on a house with 250,000 light globes………….a global report?
“And yes it is, as Bullwinkle might say, a bad pun.”
Here’s a worse one: “global warming”…

December 26, 2009 5:45 am

As a Scientist, events like this rarely give a better chance to talk about Entropy.
As you know, positive Entropy represents the process of waste and decay. If you want phosphate from urine, for example, you must expend gobs of energy. Peak oil be d*&5vg’d. Peak fertilizer is more like it.
Please let Maurice Strong, Al Gore and Obama know that carbon trading works against cheap energy, and cheap energy will be needed to reverse the positive Entropy of billions of people during the coming frigid decades.
Support good ideas like Focus Fusion. And Pray.

December 26, 2009 5:53 am

These displays make people happy and left wingers and the globaloneyists hate it when people are happy.
There’s the real problem.

Bruce Cobb
December 26, 2009 7:42 am

That is spectacular, and would be amazing to see in person, but I don’t envy the neighbors. 1:30 A.M., and even later as Christmas approaches seems excessive. “He says he wants to shock his sleepy neighborhood into sharing his love of the holiday”
“People in the back, they don’t like it,” he shrugs. “Well, too bad. It’s Christmas.”
Yes, it is Christmas, which is supposed to mean Peace, and goodwill towards your fellow man. I believe this fellows’ “Christmas Spirit” has gone a bit haywire.

December 26, 2009 7:45 am

That house is on the Arborway in Boston’s Jamaica Plain section. People have been stopping along the road to see it for years, but the owner was going to sell it a while ago, and it may not have the lights on it now.

December 26, 2009 7:53 am

As someone who has a loooong weekend with a broken furnace pump, overloading our poor hundred amp electrical service with space heaters, I’m glad we can’t reach the roof to add Christmas lights. Running back and forth resetting circuit breakers, few three wire sockets in the huge old house. Zero degrees at night in Western Colorado, highs under 20. 1980 gas log blower broken. Local HVAC plumbers mostly gone out of business. Six defunct solar hot water panels on the roof.
I’m digging out the old style big bulb outdoor Christmas lights this spring to drape all over our huge apricot tree though, they put out enough heat to save some fruit. Maybe I should spread them in the crawlspace to try and help heat the house. Blow another fuse:)

December 26, 2009 8:44 am

There was a fellow who became wealthy (I believe from those drug trials on humans that compare a placebo with the real thing) in the Little Rock, AR area who had a display exceeding 2 MILLION lights. His equally affluent neighbors grew so tired of all the traffic from hundreds of cars going through their neigborhood during holiday nights, that they filed a lawsuit and the lights were put out. Money apparently can’t buy everything.

December 26, 2009 9:01 am

Engiiner (05:45:07) :
If you want phosphate from urine, for example, you must expend gobs of energy. Peak oil be d*&5vg’d. Peak fertilizer is more like it.
I just unearthed a newspaper from Monday, Nov. 24th 1969, Anchorage Daily Times. (Crumpled packing from a big balsa airplane kit, the kind you made yourself and flew with a gas engine.)
“Excess Nitrogen Puts U.S. On Suicidal Course” headline.
The United States is “approaching the point of no return” in its disruption of nature’s chemical balances, and has only about one generation in which to reverse its “suicidal course” a prominent scientist warned this week. (Harry Commoner.)

December 26, 2009 9:23 am

P Gosselin (00:40:26) :That´s the social paradise you will enjoy. Good luck!

December 26, 2009 10:36 am
Galen Haugh
December 26, 2009 1:01 pm

Regarding fusion… Pons and Fleishman worked at my old alma matre–the University of Utah. It was exciting times in ’89 when they made their fantastic discoveries. Equally un-exciting when so many researchers couldn’t duplicate it. Well, fast forward 20 years and things are exciting again.
For one, the big cartel over hydrogen fusion made sure Pons & Fleishman were drummed out of science, but something far more interesting has taken it’s place–they call it LENR, for Low Energy Nuclear Reactions. A lot of work is still going forward in many countries, particularly in Israel and Japan. Numerous patents have been filed and granted, almost all of them outside the US–there’s even a medical device on the market that runs on LENR. So by sticking our heads in the sand and letting huge special interests dictate what is and is not science, the US has no leadership role in LENR.
Some amazing strides have been made in understanding the theory behind LENR, which has had chemists and theoretical physicists pitted against each other for almost 2 decades now. The theoretical physicists remind me of the AGWers with their computer models and total reliance on theory. The chemists, on the other hand, are working on laboratory experiments to either validate or change some basic theories, and guess what? It looks like some very basic theories will at least have to be adjusted to account for laboratory observations. And the theoretical physicists are aghast: “The science is settled” they’ve asserted in their attempt to ignore the latest findings. Have they become either lazy or dishonest? All I know is that experimental evidence trumps theoretical dogma.
Even the US Navy has demonstrated LENR. It is real and once we understand it completely it may take us a long way toward energy independence.

December 26, 2009 1:01 pm

Light ’em if ya got ’em.

December 26, 2009 1:31 pm

Mark B,
You’re right -the owner sold it since last Christmas, IIRC. Anyway, we drove past it a couple hours ago and it looks like almost all of the display is gone.
The traffic situation from people parking on a main thoroughfare where there was no room for parking was aggravating. Never mind the time when there were 4 NSTAR crews and trucks digging up the sidewalk one night in front of the house for whatever reason a year or so ago. Still, it was a great conversation item around the holidays.

Jeff Alberts
December 26, 2009 2:53 pm

I think “good citizens” should think twice about garush displays simply because the vast majority ARE garish and crass.

December 26, 2009 4:08 pm

The way I figure it, there is that item of commercialization called “advertising”. A store owner puts up a sign that says, “Hardware” to indicate to the seeker of hardware that what that seeker is looking for can be found in that store.
So it is with Christmas decorations. During the Christmas season, it is special gifts I can give for Christmas to relatives and friends that I am looking for. So I look for the advertising . . . Christmas decorations, that tells me that a given store or shop has the sort of merchandise I am looking for. The special merchandise that in the past has been especially manufactured or packaged just for Christmas.
No need for me to park, go in and out of store after store to find the merchandise I am looking to buy as gifts. I simply look for the Christmas decorations (advertisement) and stop and shop for gifts at those stores.
So few stores had their “advertising” up this year that I mostly gave my grandchildren “Uncle Sam’s Green Trading Stamps” this year.
Much easier to wrap, I might say, and much appreciated too.
Not all that good for a given store’s profits, but then, they have those highly paid MBAs and marketing folks who know much better than I do.
Merry Christmas, all

December 26, 2009 4:18 pm

Jeff Alberts, you have your opinions, and others have their own opinions, as to what is “garish” or not. So suppose that you decorate the way you want to, and let others decorate as they wish. You can always avert your eyes as you are going past what you consider to be “garish”, and I can do the same, and I can drive right past your house during the Christmas season and not even notice it at all, I’ll betcha. Just as I drove past all of those stores and shops without “garish” Christmas decorations, without noticing them at all either.
Your opinion as to who is a “good citizen” or not would differ far from mine too, I betcha. What branch of the military did you do service to your country in, and for how long? How many other people have you trained to become far better earners than they were previously? “Good citizen” indeed!

Tor Hansson
December 26, 2009 10:19 pm

I understand that we have greater identified reserves of gas and oil than we used to, but aren’t we using a little more than we used to?
God Jul!

Polar bears and BBQ sauce
December 27, 2009 6:45 pm

I read recently we have enough natural gas in the USA to last 100 years. I know there are about 1000 Gigatons of coal reserves worldwide. (most in the US) And the equivalent of 5 Trillion gallons of oil in US and Canadian oil shale reserves. We don’t have an energy crisis. We have a LACK of consumption crisis. manufacturing, transporting, marketing, displaying, advertizing, delivering…. every facet of economic activity needs energy. We should be consuming it in a completely unabashed fashion. I DID NOT say we should be wasting it. Efficiency is the key to success here also. Man should not shrink away from the challenge of maintaining his energy supply. If we consumed the entirety of reserves of fossil fuels, we can easily manufacture all we want from algae. It isn’t a matter of availability, but of cost.
It is foolish paranoia to shrink from this challenge, and to cower like a rodent in the dark. If Americans want to drive a loaded F450 ($50k) with extended camper ($18K) and dragging a 26 foot boat ($80K) into the mountains at 70mph (upgrade) for a weekend camping/waterskiing trip, HOOOAH!! The economic benefit is clear. Scarcity paranoia is for whiners.

December 28, 2009 2:54 am

this is a totally ridiculous article.
besides christmas is not about who in the neighbourhood can afford to spend the most money on electricity [snip]
i can think of plenty other occasions that use the same amount of energy and actually would benefit all of humankind, not only the suburban north american jealous tribe.

December 31, 2009 2:07 am

I believe that the house across the street from me has one of the larges displays in town and is more impressive than the photo at the top of this thread. There is much to be thankful for this holiday season with our energy economy. But thoughts about the less fortunate should be with us too.

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