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Environmental Impact of Christmas

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Tagged As: Environment, Math, Science, and Society

Christmas may be one of the worst holidays for having a terrible impact to the environment. But for the sake of this quick article, let’s ignore the ramifications of wrapping paper, mall traffic, tree destruction, landfill waste, travel, and all the other negatives of consumerism. Instead, let’s focus real quick on just the electrical demands of one piece of the holiday season.

"Where do you think you're going? Nobody's leaving. Nobody's walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We're all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We're gonna press on, and we're gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he's gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse."

The kill-a-watt is a nice simple product that can tell you exactly how much power a plugged in device is consuming. So I simply attached my Christmas lights to it. My arrangement is simple – just some blue icicle lights in my front facing windows – five total strands. Using the kill-a-watt, I determined a single strand uses 40W of power so I’m using 200W total for the windows. Using a highly unscientific method of guessing, here are my conclusions:

  • I run my lights for three hours from 6pm to 9pm at 200W for a total of 0.6Kwh daily for three weeks until Christmas which uses 12.6Kwh for the season.
  • Based on the extrapolated 2014 US census report which indicates 319 million people live in America and my calibrated finger in the wind guessing 10% of Americans participate in displays, that’s 31 million people.
  • Combining my usage data against 10% of the population for the season requires 390 million Kwh of electricity to show window lights for three hours a night for three weeks.
  • According to my BGE bill, “The current price for Standard Offer Service (SOS) electricity is 9.468 cents/kWh, effective through May 31, 2016” which roughly applied to 10% of the nation means America spends $36 million dollars just on Christmas light displays.

My Christmas tree consists of three strands of regular, old fashioned lights. This is likely even more expensive because 73% of the country claims to be Christian and while they may eschew outdoor displays, most have some form of an indoor tree. Again, using the highly scientific finger-in-the-wind, here are some quick estimates:

  • According to my kill-a-watt, my tree of three light strands consumes 140W of power. Assuming I leave it on for three hours a day for three weeks that equates to 8.8Kwh of electricity.
  • The National Christmas Tree Association (yes – that’s apparently a thing) estimates that Americans spent $1B buying 26.3 million Christmas trees in 2014 and another $1B buying fake trees. Considering fake trees are reusable every year and that yearly sales of real and fake trees accounts for 40 million, it seems safe to assume that over time (again, with the fake trees being reused) along with the estimated portion of Americans claiming to be active Christians, 100 million trees are illuminated in America per year.
  • Using the same math as before, America consumes 880 million Kwh in a mere three weeks just lighting up Christmas trees at a cost of $83.3 million.

These numbers obviously don’t account for Europe at all. So between window/yard displays and Christmas trees (while ignoring larger municipal displays), American citizens by themselves likely consumes more than a billion Kwh of electricity simply to twinkle holiday lights. According to the US Energy Information Administration – a billion Kwh of electricity comes at price of:

  • 1 billion pounds of coal
  • 10 billion cubic feet of natural gas
  • 1.75 million barrels of oil

Happy Holidays!

NOTE:Looks like I was off by a factor of 6. An earlier estimate using a Kill-A-Watt and some back-of-the-hand calculations guessed that America consumes 1 billion kilowatt hours for festive illumination. A little more formal computation from researchers using Department of Energy data estimate the true figure for Christmas electrical consumption is 6.63 billion kilowatt hours.

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