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Three Cheers for Holiday Lighting! (“let it glow, let it glow, let it glow”)

Left 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 come December when billions of stringed light bulbs on buildings and trees 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. it makes one wish for more lighting all months of the year in urban centers–for ease of movement, for safety, for better moods. “Here Comes the Sun,” a favorite of so many, could be joined by “Here Comes the Light.”

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. 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 waste 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!

Global Energy Reserves

In terms of proved reserves:

  • World oil supply is 20 times[1] greater now than when record-keeping began in the 1940s;
  • World gas supply is over six times[2] greater than when in the 1960s; and
  • World coal has risen almost fourfold[3] since 1950.

Political events can drive supply down and prices up, but the BTU mineral base is prolific—and expanding in economic terms thanks to an inexhaustible supply of human ingenuity and exploratory capital.

Air Pollution

Record energy consumption has been accompanied by improving air quality.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that America’s urban air quality is almost 60 percent better today than in 1970.[4]

Between 1970 and 2008:

  • Carbon monoxide (CO) emissions have fallen 60 percent;
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions have fallen 41 percent;
  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions have fallen 65 percent;
  • Volital organic compounds (VOCs) emissions have fallen 53 percent;
  • Particulate matter 10 (PM 10) emissions have fallen 84 percent; and
  • Lead emissions have fallen 99 percent.

Source: http://www.epa.gov/airtrends/2006/emissions_summary_2005.html; http://www.epa.gov/airtrends/aqtrends.html

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), this fall in criteria pollutants was accomplished while fossil energy usage increased by almost a third.[5]

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.

Climate Change

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 arguably 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–the dense energy of oil, gas, and coal–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 1.4 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.”

Conclusion

Energy consumption is good—no, make that wonderful–for comfort, convenience, cheer, 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.

———————————————

[1] Robert Bradley, Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability (Washington: American Legislative Exchange Council, 2000), pp. 29–30; Energy Information Administration, http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm?tid=5&pid=57&aid=6

[2] Bradley, Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability, pp. 29–30; Energy Information Administration, http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm?tid=3&pid=3&aid=6.

[3] Bradley, Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability, pp. 29–30; Energy Information Administration, http://www.eia.gov/aer/pdf/pages/sec11_27.pdf

[4] Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/airtrends/2006/emissions_summary_2005.html and http://www.epa.gov/airtrends/aqtrends.html.

[5] Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review, http://www.eia.gov/aer/pdf/pages/sec1_9.pdf.

14 comments

1 Charles { 12.24.10 at 4:26 am }

Tremendous post, which of course bells the cat on the extreme left environmentalists which are currently dogging the rest of us. Most Greenies pick out the fact we are burning all this stuff (fossil fuel) and by this act are implicitly degrading the quality of the air. However, as pointed out by the author, by increasing our fossil fuel burning, and competently harvesting the energy produced ,we can actually achieve a positive environmental outcome, where aerosol pollutants are reduced, but production is still forging ahead.

This syndrome has been in evidence in the agricultural industry for more than 30 years where the use of crop protection chemicals and fertilisers have allowed us to revegate critically damaged land resereves, and improve the quality of our soil, while at the same time increasing the amount of food produced per unit of land.

The best thing the Green movement could do if they were really interested in inproving the environment, would be to step back and let the free market do its thing with human ingenuity and ability, to see that they don’t have to necessarily damage something to gain a desirable outcome. The current system where they (Greens) bludgeon society into all these stupid tokens and symbols of their variation of environmental care, is really only producing the opposite outcome where the environment is degraded, and production is inhibited.

Time to shake off the political correctness, send the Greens and environmentalists off to whatever version of Coventry is available for them, and let the rest of humanity get on with what we do best, build effective societies and civilisations.

2 John Droz { 12.24.10 at 8:30 am }

Good comments Rob.

Hope you and your family have a merry Christmas, and a healthy and successful New Year.

3 rbradley { 12.24.10 at 10:14 am }

Same to you John.

Everyone keep the lights up into the New Year–we need the joy and reminder that energy is the master resource!

4 Andrew { 12.24.10 at 10:49 am }

Actually, although there have not been many pundits complaining about Christmas lighting, at least openly, it is not as if the enviro-left has totally ignored them:

Great Barrington Mass tried to ban them explicitly stating Environmental concerns. Ever on the watch for people attacking Christmas, Bill O’Reilly exposed them as just hating the holiday as “not inclusive”, but that they claimed to be worried about the environment is worth noting.

A Merry Christmas to all, and to all bright light! :)

5 Kermit { 12.24.10 at 10:59 am }

I’ve noticed that a those neighbors who get into the worldwide lights out event, ALL have at least their front porches and front windows bordered by strings of Christmas lights. Even better is that none of the bulbs are of the LED variety but instead incandescent.

6 JavalinaTex { 12.25.10 at 8:49 am }

Generally good post, although there are a few things I might not agree with.

However, I was surprised you didn’t make the point about how much specific power consumption of lighting has been reduced; first by the mini-lights and now by LED lights. I just replaced my old mini-light Icicle with LEDs. Five strings @ 5 watts each replacing 4 @ 25 watts each. And the old smaller incandecet strings (which many still use) each bulb as 7 watts each. All the strings I put out (about 1/2 mini and 1/2 LED with LEDs gaining as the old ones wear out) use less than one of the strings we put out in the early 1970′s.

IMO Jevon’s paradox is too often invoked; while it is real, it really often doesn’t apply in a lot of situations (like this one). Yes, people probably put out far more strings (I do); but the total percentage of people decorating is proably unchanged and the strings and bulbs are so much more efficient that consumption is probably down overall (but the utility of the enjoyment of decorating still remains).

Also I have replaced probably 90% of the incandesents in my house with CFLs (finally found a brand & “color” that my wife wouldn’t reject) – OK so there is some sort of subsidy from the local T&D company that has lowerered the cost to the point where replacement is a no-brainer.

The series on illumination that ran this past week was especially, um… illuminating… I look at all those nostaligic Thomas Kinkade paintings and laugh. Simpler Times? Really? The struggle to make candles, make them or buy them, use animal fat oil, then city gas, then early electricity. Today’s times are the simpler times (like the old joke asking kids where milk comes from and they say the grocery store – anyone who ever had to milk cows to get their milk would find today’s development far simpler and most farmers get theirs from the grocery store) and this gives vast segments of our society (on all sides and ideologies) the luxury to waste time worrying about a myriad of maladies – real and imagined, outrages and affronts.

Let us look on the Bright Side…

Merry Christmas to all and a prosperous and Happy New Year.

7 rbradley { 12.25.10 at 10:42 am }

JavalinaTex:

Great comments. I think you might be right that the ‘Jevons Paradox’ does not exist in the case of holiday lighting. Could be like if church services went to 50 minutes instead of an hour–would it increase attendance, or is the crowd already pretty set?

With your LEVs–what is the opportunity cost in the sense of spending the same amount of money and getting higher quality lighting?

If folks are paying more for an inferior product (if) to ‘save the world,’ what about the brightness foregone and the incremental expenditure that could have gone to another cause?

8 Andrew { 12.25.10 at 11:33 am }

I think if Church services were shortened from an hour to half an hour more people would attend. Ten minutes won’t save people from missing any television shows ;)

The fundamental “unit of utility” here is probably a half an hour.

9 Blanca Huff { 12.25.10 at 5:22 pm }

Good comments Rob. Hope you and your family have a merry Christmas, and a healthy and successful New Year.

10 Chris T { 12.27.10 at 1:33 pm }

Switched over to LEDs this year for the Christmas tree and fail to see how they’re in any way ‘inferior’. My wife and I actually prefer them to the incandescent. Ironically, we’ve countered the energy savings somewhat by leaving them on all the time.

11 rbradley { 12.27.10 at 10:20 pm }

Chris T:

I’ll take your word for it, but I wonder what the same amount of money buys in comparison to LED’s in terms of quality and quantity.

Could be that the LED glow is better for holiday lighting than other uses–I invite comments on this.

12 Chris T { 12.28.10 at 1:54 pm }

Price is the reason I’m waiting to switch over to LEDs (and a lack of burnt out bulbs). Personally, I like them and the cost is falling.

13 Andrew { 12.28.10 at 5:00 pm }

I believe that LEDs have a strong future. The price is still too high but that is indeed changing. Right now that means that you can get greater quantities of incandescents for the same price. This is, AFAIK, their only inferiority. It might help if the government wasn’t trying to prop up the truly inferior competition, namely compact fluorescents.

There is one feature of incandescents which of course is often forgotten or even mistreated in analysis: the “waste heat” of the bulbs is not actually wasted in all cases, as it contributes some to the heating of homes in winter. We don’t need much of that here in Florida, though.

As for LEDs being “too bright”, I can see that potentially being a problem for ordinary residential lighting-although nothing a special “bulb” casing or lampshades wouldn’t be able to fix. That would add a little cost on. Probably another reason to wait. But the future, I think, will be here soon.

14 JavalinaTex { 12.30.10 at 10:03 pm }

Rob, a couple of comments. First, I misstated in saying Jevon’s Paradox doesn’t apply. In reality, I would acknowledge it always applies (it is really a long term shift of the demand curve). However, what I feel is often grossly overstated is the “rebound effect”. The way it is often (crudely) presented is that people have a fixed budget for their use of a particular commodity and when they have a more efficient use for that commodity, they will just use more of it. Sort of an “Iron Law”.

People buy transportation (and lighting) not gasoline (or electricity). The fuel commodity – especially in transportation – merely one of the many costs (and not the greatest) of the total costs – the demand for it is derived from the demand for “utility” of transportation. In reality, society and individuals have gain much more utility out of the same commodity fuel.

As an example of why I think rebound is overstated, it took amost 15 years from the peak in US gasoline consumption to get back to the level of 1978 despite increased population, vehicles, economic growth and greater miles driven per year per vehicle. I’d bet you have written on this (Julian Simon book? – I have a copy but couldn’t locate it).

So a growing and more efficient vehicle fleet took a very long time to rebound to a former peak. I think you will see the same with lighting.

Regarding your point about environmentally “conscience” people need to consider how to maximize their, um I mean societal, benefit from incremental expenditures, is well taken. As an example, long time friend who made a fortune as an executive in Gas and Power, his wife has been a life long “enviro”… when we visted them, she was interested in putting a gray water system (they live in a rural area) in an existing house. I tried to explain to her that the costs would likely be huge and that there were a lot of other things she could do that would have far more benefit and said that was how she should look at it (save if for the new house you plan to build).

I find a lot of enviros tend to be “scolds” or “pharisees” at worst or “Scrooges” at best (I am proabably being unfair to Scrooge) in that they often out of ignorance, focus on show or extremely low return efforts. If Veblen were alive today, he might call it conspicuous “conservation” or “thrift”.

One of the worst ideas ever in this regard, and I say this because it was a belief I have held for over 30 years and is held by a lot of very conservative people I know in the energy industy, are that tankless water heaters are a great idea. I finally was forced to realize the implications when I had them installed them in a 30,000 sq ft build out (80 amp 240 v circuit for a 2 gpm heater? No Way! Then I did the math). We did put the tankless, for certain reasons it made sense for that application. Then I looked at putting them in my home; it would have been a larger load than my furnace and likely would have had to install another line from my meter to the water heater. But in my mind the reason they are a bad idea is that the strain they could put on the power grid could be very high. I even would be concerned about their impact on the gas grid. That is before you even consider the extra cost and problems associated with them (see Consumer Reports).

I also think you have a very valid point that the enviros have decided to drop the Christmas (Holiday?) lighting battle; but still get upset over other issues that probably use no more electricity – like instant on technology. I think that these are overstated in general. I don’t disagree with government regulatory programs to try to overcome these, but the key question is whether we will have functionality. Usually, early in the process functionality is negativly impacted, and expensive for early adopters; later the benefits tend to accrue with functionality restored. It really comes down to a learning curve in the design and manufacturing process.

Regarding lighting. The thing to keep in mind with christmas lights is that you often are not going for “lumens” but a decorative effect. Kind of like neon signs. You are really lighting a tree, a yard sculpture, a pathway. Yes, LCDs are more expensive than mini-lights, I’d SWAG twice as much. But both are so cheap that I think the electric savings, despite the minimal use, would be paid back within the 5 or 6 year life time (of incandescent mini lights – I do not expect a LCD string to last much longer – bulb failure is not the relavent lifetime issue).

LCDs do have some differences from mini-lights but they are easily and econmically overcome; usually by the lamp casing.

Generally, to give you an idea of the relative savings here is my swag. LCD mini bulb 0.1 watt; incandescent mini bulb 0.5 watt; C-7 incadescent (what we had as kids – essentially a night light bulb) 7.0 watts; energy saving C-7 incandescent 2.5 watts; C-7 LCD bulb 1.0 watts.

Andrew, while I agree that LEDs have a strong future and that costs will come down and lighting quality will improve; I disagree that CFLs are truly inferior to LEDs at this point in time and that they are only succeeding instead of LEDs because they are being “propped up” by the government. Both technologies, and in fact any sort of “more efficient” than incandescent technology is being “propped up”. Yes CFLs are benefitting disproportantely from governmental policies to push more efficient lighting. LEDs have the potential to be a superior replacement than CFLs but the cost structure is way, way out of whack right now. The LED bulbs the last I looked were about $20 for a 60 w replacement vs. $1 for a CFL. Many of the issues of CFLs I have found easy to live with. Yes, there are some aspects that are “inferior” to incandescents; but overall CFLs work well. I will go to LEDs when they get down to a $1 to $2 price ($6 in some applications like floods or decorative bulbs). I will probably buy them for some uses long before that. CFLs are further along because the underlying technology is essentially much more mature as it is that of a fluorescent light.

Also your waste heat point is well taken. In a northern climate the heat given off by an incandescent is is a net benefit as it reduces the heating requirements (call it a form of cogen or combined heat and light). In a southern climate a negative. My math puts the extra cost in Houston A/C at an additional 25% of the bulbs wattage. Overall, I suspect however, that it will make more sense to go with more efficient lights and burn more natural gas. Electric heat even if it is an offshoot of lighting is very expensive compared with Natural Gas.

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