Friday, December 5, 2008

How the Grinch Sustained Christmas

Now that the harvest celebration is over we move into the period of mass consumption collectively known as the holidays. College students love this period as it provides a socially acceptable mechanism to deck out their rooms with strings of 2.5 volt incandescent lights. I must say that I'm not completely innocent. I did the same thing as an undergraduate.

Take a look at Lasell College residence hall electricity use in the 2007 academic year.

December electricity consumption rivaled October in the residence halls despite the fact that the college was closed for a third of the month. Per day of open school, residence halls used about 5,900 kWh in October compared to 8,800 kWh in December. Can this be explained by holiday lighting?

Probably not. More likely this is due to the loss of daylight savings time and the return of darkness at 4:30 P.M. But still there must be some impact of holiday lighting on our carbon footprint. Let's play with some numbers.

A 50 bulb string of mini lights consumes about 25 watts. If we assume a college student turns the lights on at 6 P.M. and off at midnight the lights are run for 6 hours per day. Let's also assume the student installs the lights on December 1st and takes them down when they leave for break on December 21st. During this period of time a string of lights will consume 3 kWh. Not a huge number.

Now let's scale up a bit. If a student is going to put up lighting they probably have at least 2 strings of light so now we are at 6 kWh per room. Now let's say that 250 rooms put lighting up. Now we are at 1500 kWh of electricity which has a carbon footprint of 2700 lbs. I'm probably quite conservative in my estimate as I know some of the suites will run hundreds of bulbs.

As Lasell College strives to reduce carbon emissions should we ban holiday lighting? If I am in the right ballpark with my assumptions then holiday lighting accounts for only about 0.04% of our annual electricity consumption. This is probably a battle not worth fighting as the impact just isn't there. Students would line up and protest outside my office door if we banned holiday lights. Although I'd actually be kind of excited about seeing a spark of student activism.

A ban isn't necessary as there is a new option to reduce the environmental impact of holiday lighting that we need to promote. LED lights are now available that use only about 4 watts. If we allowed holiday lighting but convinced students to purchase LED lights rather than incandescents we would reduce our carbon footprint from 2700 lbs down to 432 lbs which is over an 80% savings. The unfortunate thing right now is the cost. College students have no money and a sting of LED lights costs much more than a string of overstocked incandescent lights. Hopefully by the next holiday season the price of LED lights will come down and all new purchases of holiday lighting will be of this energy saving variety.

1 comment:

Tracy said...

Hi Michael,

I just saw your blog post about Van Jones' speech at the AASHE2008 conference. I agree that it is important to consider sustainable solutions when deciding how to go about strengthening the economy! I’m working with a green bank that has recently been endorsed by Van Jones because of their 35-year commitment to the environment and the community.

We have some Van Jones video clips that we'd be happy to share with you. Please contact me at if you are interested. Thanks!