Commentary

Three Cheers for Holiday Lighting

The holiday season must be a time of mixed emotions for environmentalists critical of electrified America. It may be the season of good cheer and goodwill toward all, but it is also the time of the most conspicuous of all energy consumption. For the last month of the year, billions of small light bulbs illuminate America. Somber darkness and everyday lighting are transformed into magnificent beauty and celebration. Christmas lights are a great social offering — a positive externality in the jargon of economics — given by many to all.

Although doomsayer Paul Ehrlich once railed against “garish commercial Christmas displays,” energy conservationists have not engaged a public debate of the issue. Yet holiday season lighting is a glaring exception to the goal of reducing energy usage wherever possible. If holiday electricity guzzling is forgiven, shouldn’t open-air heating and cooling, bright central lighting and instant-on appliances that “leak” electricity be excused? Walking around the hotel room to turn on individual lights or waiting for the photocopier to warm up, after all, squanders the most scarce and depleting 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 hydrocarbons, fouls the air and destabilizes climate? Good tidings abound! The world’s proven reserves of oil, natural gas and coal are at record levels. If probable resources are added to proven reserves, world supply is officially estimated at more than 2 thousand years for coal, 200 years for natural gas and 150 years for crude oil. Substitutes within the hydrocarbon family and derivatives from biomass make oil and gas inexhaustible.

The quality of our air has dramatically improved in recent decades despite record consumption of each hydrocarbon. As the Environmental Protection Agency stated in its last annual air-quality summary: “Since 1970, national total emissions of the six criteria pollutants declined 31 percent, while U.S. population increased 31 percent, gross domestic product increased 114 percent, and vehicle miles traveled increased 127 percent.” Few advocates of clearer air from industry, government or the environmental community believe that technological improvement of power plants and motor vehicles will not continue to hasten the clean air revolution. The only question is in the short-run cost to cushion the transition for consumers wed to affordable energy.

Are global warming and other climate change attributed to increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reason to decrease our use of coal, oil and, eventually, natural gas? Good tidings exist here as well. The warming properties of increased greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are more modest (and beneficial) than the new doomsayers are letting on. Climate models predicting high warming scenarios hinge on an unproven positive feedback with the most prevalent greenhouse gas, water vapor. Our most reliable global temperature records, from satellites and balloons, indicate that the enhanced greenhouse effect is highly overrated.

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 enhanced photosynthesis, improved use of water by plants and longer growing seasons. Carbon dioxide cycling, in short, is a continuing windfall of the hydrocarbon era.

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 marginal costs of generation and distribution in virtually every region of the country for almost all of the year, increased consumption allocates the utilities’ fixed cost over more units to lower rates overall. A study by Citizens for a Sound Economy estimated that increasing electricity usage up to 25 percent across the United States during the off-peak season (including December) would lower rates by a like amount since existing facilities would be more fully utilized. More holiday lighting may be only a small step toward more efficient use of our electricity infrastructure, but it is a beginning. There is much to be thankful for in our energy economy this holiday season.

All economic and environmental indicators for conventional energies are positive and open-ended. In the 1970s pervasive price and allocation regulation led to public edicts and private efforts to curtail holiday lighting, but today we find that market-oriented policies have made Christmas lighting more plentiful and affordable than ever. May one and all in good conscience enliven the darkness and lower electricity rates this holiday season. And with a more competitive electricity market on the horizon, and constantly improving technologies coming into play, Americans 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 in Houston and an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.