Commentary

Three Cheers for Christmas Lights!

The holiday season must be a time of mixed emotions for those who fear we consume too much energy. It is the season of good cheer and goodwill toward all, but it is also the time of the most conspicuous energy consumption. For the last month of the year, hundreds of millions of small light bulbs suddenly illuminate America. Somber darkness and everyday lighting are transformed into magnificent beauty and celebration. Christmas lights are a great social offering given by many to all.

The Alliance to Save Energy and other environmental groups that argue that Americans are energy gluttons remain silent about Christmas lighting. Yet holiday lights are a huge exception to their goal of reducing energy usage wherever possible. If Yuletide electricity guzzling is forgiven, why shouldn’t open-air heating and cooling or bright central lighting in every room be excused? Walking around a room to turn on individual lights, for example, wastes the scarcest resource of all, a person’s time. Surely energy uses for human comfort and convenience, even when extravagant, should have priority over purely celebratory uses of electricity.

What about the holiday humbug that celebratory electricity usage depletes our finite resources of fossil fuels and fouls our air? I bring good tidings! The world’s proven reserves of oil, natural gas and coal are at an all-time high, and search costs continue to fall thanks to better technology. Human ingenuity and the wealth to discover new sources of hydrocarbons are vast resources that again and again have outdistanced the “finiteness” of nature. Market economies can look forward to increasing consumption of conventional energies, an increasing range of energy substitutes and falling energy prices.

With a more competitive electricity market on the horizon, we can look forward to ever greater holiday celebrations in the years and decades ahead.”

The quality of our air has dramatically improved in recent decades despite record consumption of oil, gas and coal, and the air continues to become cleaner. Air-quality problems still exist in some places for parts of the year, but the social will and the technology are there to make further progress toward clean air. Furthermore, we can breathe easier about global warming due to greenhouse gases. The most reliable temperature records indicate that an apocalyptic warming is not under way, and atmospheric physicists are much closer to refuting the alarmist hypothesis than to confirming it. Carbon dioxide has never been regulated for a reason: it is not a pollutant but an environmental tonic that helps to “green” the earth through increased precipitation, longer growing seasons and enhanced photosynthesis for most plants and food crops.

Discretionary electricity consumption during the holiday season is more than a gift of beauty and goodwill: it benefits ratepayers as a class. With today’s electricity rates well above the costs of generation and distribution in virtually every region of the country, increased consumption brings idle capacity online and leads to lower rates overall. A study by Citizens for a Sound Economy estimates that increasing electricity usage by any amount up to 25 percent across the United States would lower rates by a like amount, since existing facilities would be better utilized. Increased off-peak consumption for holiday lighting may be only a small step toward more efficient use of our electricity infrastructure, but it is a welcome beginning.

Our energy economy gives us much to be thankful for this holiday season. While pervasive price and allocation regulation in the 1970s led to public edicts and private efforts to curtail holiday lighting, today we find that market-oriented policies have made Christmas lighting more plentiful and affordable than ever.

Holiday lighting is becoming more commonplace every year. May we in good conscience enliven the darkness and lower electricity rates for one another. And with a more competitive electricity market on the horizon, we can look forward to ever greater holiday celebrations in the years and decades ahead.

Robert L. Bradley Jr. is president of the Institute for Energy Research and an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.