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Season of light bills

Marketplace Staff Dec 26, 2006

BOB MOON: As soon as you summon up the willpower, it’s time to start un-decking the halls. For the time being, though, the warm glow continues. Not just in our hearts but on our front lawns. Here in California, the Christmas lights tend to stay up till Valentine’s day. Much of the country is likely to burn bright for at least another week or two.

The folks at the Minnesota Public Radio show “In the Loop” wondered about the part of that seasonal cheer that we don’t see — at least not right away: the cost of our holiday lighting obsession. Jeff Horwich set out to do those numbers.

JEFF HORWICH: With the basic building block of the light bulb, people like Jerry Fink turn the long winter nights into something to look forward to.

JERRY FINK: Up on the hill there we have the major scene, three wise men, the shepherd, the sheep, the donkey.

HORWICH: And they all light up?

FINK: And the camels. Yes, they all light up.

Jerry walks from outlet to outlet bringing his yard to life in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dozens of fans start blowing, and lumps of canvas lurch upward from the lawn.FINK: Looks like everything’s startin’ to move.

HORWICH: Your whole yard’s coming to life here. Got SpongeBob over there, and the nutcracker…

FINK: Outside of that, I have 135 plastic figurines. Each one lights up.

HORWICH: Any idea how many bulbs are involved in the whole project?

FINK: We have right around 15,000 I counted up.

Jerry’s holiday spirit comes at a price. He figures he’s got about $8,000 in decorations. It takes him a hundred hours to string all the lights. And for the first time last year, Jerry actually ran the numbers on his power usage.FINK: Our power consumption was running us around $500 for the season, extra on our bill.But for every Jerry Fink, there are thousands of more modest displays drawing extra power from the grid. Like mine.

I’m standing in the soft glow of my house, in the cold, and I’m going to do something I don’t usually do on my front yard: Math.

Now across my front awning this year, I’ve got two strings of icicle lights with 300 mini-bulbs each. Inside my front porch are another two strings. Our Christmas tree lives on the porch too, with maybe 300 lights on it — so we’re talking 1500 half-watt bulbs. My timers keep them lit seven hours a day — so that’s about 250 hours from Thanksgiving to New Years, when I think I’m gonna take ’em down. Right now my power company charges 7.2 cents per kilowatt hour. So you add all this up and we’re talking 13 dollars and 50 cents. For the whole season.

Well, that seems like a pretty small price to pay for all this Christmas joy.

But what about pollution? My power company makes 83 percent of its electricity from coal and natural gas. Turns out my modest display of holiday spirit accounts for 252 additional pounds of carbon dioxide Santa and his reindeer get to fly through on the way to my rooftop.

Putting aside the massive commercial and municipal displays, let’s say one in twenty U.S. households has a display as large as mine. That’s $75 million of electricity and 1.4 billion pounds of carbon dioxide.

So, what is an environmentally-conscious holiday light addict to do? This year there are LED Christmas lights on the market, which use just a fraction of the power of traditional incandescents. But LED strings are pricey — more than a dollar per foot. For more ideas, I called up a particularly conspicuous homeowner: Alek Komarnitsky in Boulder, Colorado.

ALEK KOMARNITSKY: What I have, Jeff, is 15,000 Christmas lights and several inflatables. And I’ve got three web cams that people on the Internet can not only view those Christmas lights and decorations, they can actually control them — they can turn them on and off with the click of a mouse.

Alek soothes his conscience by paying extra to his power company to support wind energy. And each holiday season, he calculates his carbon emissions and makes a compensating donation toward alternative energy research.

KOMARNITSKY: I mean I don’t want to raise the flag and say I’m such a great guy, blah blah blah, I’m Al Gore’s buddy’ or whatever. But I dunno I just thought it was kind of a good thing to do.

Alek has also used his web site to raise more than $15,000 for research into an autoimmune disease that affects his two sons. Apparently, his lights put people in a giving mood.

In the end, there is no easy way to complete the math equation on holiday lights. We can measure the costs in dollars, carbon, or adding to the dull orange glow that surrounds our cities and towns. But until someone figures out a scientific measurement for holiday cheer and the goodwill it inspires, the benefits will be much more difficult to pin down.

In St. Paul, I’m Jeff Horwich for Marketplace.

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