Three Cheers for Holiday Lighting

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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 commercialChristmas displays," energy conservationists have not engaged a publicdebate of the issue. Yet holiday season lighting is a glaring exception tothe goal of reducing energy usage wherever possible. If holidayelectricity guzzling is forgiven, shouldn't open-air heating and cooling, brightcentral lighting and instant-on appliances that "leak" electricity be excused?Walking around the hotel room to turn on individual lights or waiting forthe photocopier to warm up, after all, squanders the most scarce anddepleting resource of all, a person's time. Surely energy uses for humancomfort and convenience, even when extravagant, should have priority overpurely celebratory uses of electricity.

What about the holiday humbug that celebratory electricity usage depleteshydrocarbons, fouls the air and destabilizes climate? Good tidings abound!The world's proven reserves of oil, natural gas and coal are at recordlevels. If probable resources are added to proven reserves, world supplyis officially estimated at more than 2 thousand years for coal, 200 years fornatural gas and 150 years for crude oil. Substitutes within thehydrocarbon family and derivatives from biomass make oil and gas inexhaustible.

The quality of our air has dramatically improved in recent decades despiterecord consumption of each hydrocarbon. As the Environmental ProtectionAgency stated in its last annual air-quality summary: "Since 1970, nationaltotal emissions of the six criteria pollutants declined 31 percent, whileU.S. population increased 31 percent, gross domestic product increased 114percent, and vehicle miles traveled increased 127 percent." Few advocatesof clearer air from industry, government or the environmental communitybelieve that technological improvement of power plants and motor vehicleswill not continue to hasten the clean air revolution. The only question isin the short-run cost to cushion the transition for consumers wed toaffordable energy.

Are global warming and other climate change attributed to increasingconcentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reason to decrease ouruse of coal, oil and, eventually, natural gas? Good tidings exist here aswell. The warming properties of increased greenhouse gas concentrations inthe atmosphere are more modest (and beneficial) than the new doomsayers areletting on. Climate models predicting high warming scenarios hinge on anunproven positive feedback with the most prevalent greenhouse gas, watervapor. Our most reliable global temperature records, from satellites andballoons, indicate that the enhanced greenhouse effect is highly overrated.

Carbon dioxide has never been regulated for a reason: it is not a pollutantbut an environmental tonic that helps to "green" the earth through enhancedphotosynthesis, improved use of water by plants and longer growing seasons.Carbon dioxide cycling, in short, is a continuing windfall of thehydrocarbon era.

Discretionary electricity consumption during the holiday season is morethan a gift of beauty and goodwill, it benefits ratepayers as a class. Withtoday's electricity rates well above the marginal costs of generation anddistribution in virtually every region of the country for almost all of theyear, increased consumption allocates the utilities' fixed cost over moreunits to lower rates overall. A study by Citizens for a Sound Economyestimated that increasing electricity usage up to 25 percent across theUnited States during the off-peak season (including December) would lowerrates by a like amount since existing facilities would be more fullyutilized. More holiday lighting may be only a small step toward moreefficient 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 arepositive and open-ended. In the 1970s pervasive price and allocationregulation led to public edicts and private efforts to curtail holidaylighting, but today we find that market-oriented policies have madeChristmas lighting more plentiful and affordable than ever. May one andall in good conscience enliven the darkness and lower electricity rates thisholiday season. And with a more competitive electricity market on thehorizon, and constantly improving technologies coming into play, Americanscan look forward to ever-greater holiday celebrations in the years anddecades ahead.

Robert L. Bradley Jr.

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