Once upon a time, the average Utahn would have used as much electricity lighting their roofline for Christmas as the typical Ethiopian would have used in an entire year.
But thanks to power-saving light emitting diode bulbs, known as LEDs, adding holiday sparkle can mean a slight uptick in the average household’s December electric bill — an increase roughly equivalent to running two extra loads of laundry.
LED Christmas lights, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, use on average less than a quarter of the electricity required by traditional incandescent Christmas bulbs. Some use as little as one-tenth as much energy.
So even though commercial and residential displays across Utah and elsewhere seem to get bigger and brighter every year, it turns out most displays use significantly less electricity than they did only a decade ago.
Take the lights at Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City — arguably Utah’s flagship Christmas light display. According to Temple Square Hospitality, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decorated the temple grounds amid the faith’s worldwide headquarters with about 800,000 lights in 1997.
If all those lights were conventional incandescent mini-lights — the tiny lights you see wound around trees, fences and other surfaces in downtown Salt Lake City during the winter holiday season — about 100 bulbs would use 40.8 watts. By that calculation, 20 years ago, Temple Square would have used in the range of 50,000 kilowatt hours of electricity to power its display five hours a day for 30 days.
For comparison, the average Utah household uses about 725 kilowatt hours of electricity per month, according to Rocky Mountain Power, Utah’s largest electrical provider.
The Temple Square display has expanded considerably since 1997, but in a conversion that began in 2009, almost all of the lights are now LEDs.
The display now uses about a quarter of the power it once required, said David Miles, who is the director of events and support services for the LDS Church.
“We have seen a dramatic decrease in our energy consumption,” Miles said.
It’s not clear how exactly many lights are on display at Temple Square this year — Miles said nobody has counted recently.
Luminaria, the lights display at Thanksgiving Point in Utah County, has about a million lights on display, according to spokesman Josh Berndt. Most, he said, are LEDs.
The lights are powered by five industrial-sized generators, so the additional consumption doesn’t show up on the Thanksgiving Point power bill, Berndt said. But assuming most of the lights are LED minis — 100 of which pull about 4.8 watts — the display should use just under 12,000 kWh during its 34-day run this year.
This is Luminaria’s second year of operation. Last year was something of an experiment, Berndt said, but it was so well received that this year, Thanksgiving Point brought the display back with several new features.
The resulting boosted attendance, with a comparatively small cost of hosting and powering lighting spreads, has commercial value. Thanksgiving Point has already sold 70,000 Luminaria tickets, which start at $10. Berndt said they expect to sell another 10,000 by the week’s end.
Hogle Zoo, which lights most of its 42 acres for its annual ZooLights display, brings in an average of 2,000 visitors each day during the event, said Erica Hansen, the zoo’s community relations manager.
That’s a huge seasonal spike for the zoo, Hansen said. Open year-round, she said, Hogle can expect to entertain as few as a dozen guests some wintry days.
“ZooLights has helped the zoo exponentially,” Hansen said, and for relatively little cost.
Though unsure of the number of lights on display, a review of the zoo’s power bills put lighting costs at just $2,000, Hansen said, calling that “pretty minimal compared to the zoo operations as a whole.”
Competition among an ever-multiplying number of commercial lighting displays is growing, though. Attendance at ZooLights dropped by about a third last year, compared to peak traffic in 2014, when the display drew 95,000 visitors.
Temple Square, for one, is staying out of that fray. Miles said the church has no plans to expand its display in hopes of drawing larger audiences.
“Our goal is to try to showcase the temple and Temple Square,” he said. “We’re not trying to compete with some of the larger displays around the state. It’s our invitation to come see these beautiful buildings that are sacred to us.”
But the Christmas-lights spirit apparently has other Utah residents in a more competitive mood.
Modern Display is a Salt Lake City-based home decor and commercial display company and former Christmas lights supplier to Temple Square — before the church display got so big that they started sourcing wholesale lights themselves.
In part, because of its own unique storefront displays over the years, many longtime residents associate Modern Display with Christmas decor, which makes up about 80 percent of the company’s yearly retail sales.
The store’s director of retail operations said 2016 was one of Modern Display’s best for holiday lights sales.
“We definitely sell more lights than we sold back then” when Modern Display supplied Temple Square, said Shane Atkin. “And we sold a lot of lights back then.”
In just the past few months, Atkin said, Modern Display has sold about 70,000 strands of Christmas lights, more than a million individual Christmas light bulbs, and more than 1,500 artificial Christmas trees.
Utah’s demand for holiday decor, Atkin said, seems insatiable. “I don’t think sales will decrease,” he said. “More and more people keep doing more parts of their houses, business want to do it, cities are adding displays.”
Power and prosperity
In a worldwide sense, using all that electricity is a marker of wealth and prosperity, according to the Center for Global Development, a Washington, D.C. think tank devoted to eliminating poverty. Americans, as a whole, use more electricity to power Christmas lights than some entire developing nations use in a year, says Todd Moss, a fellow at the center.
Residents of Ethiopia in eastern Africa, for example, use just 52 kWh per person per year, according to Moss. If Utahns lit all of those million plus lights they bought from Modern Display for just five hours a day for a month, they will have used more power than 250 Ethiopians in a year.
That’s not to say that Utahns should take down their lights, Moss said.
“We think it’s amazing and fantastic that people celebrate the holidays with lights,” he said. “It invokes positive things like peace and love and life.”
“The point,” he continued, “is that we live in a country where we can afford to put lights on just for celebration.”
Access to power is a key ingredient that makes modern life possible in America, Moss said, and increasing access in developing countries will be key to helping power-strapped nations like Nigeria, India and China reduce poverty.
Cutting back on electrical use in Utah wouldn’t necessarily make more power available to these countries, but Moss said he believes that as a comparatively wealthy nation, Americans ought to help their global neighbors expand their own electrical grids so they, too, can enjoy holiday lights and other luxuries.
Few people realize how fundamental energy development is to eliminating poverty, he said.
“Everybody wants a fridge, heating and cooling, computers and phones and all of the stuff that makes modern life — it’s what most people around the world aspire to,” Moss said. “And if they don’t live in a place with a modern energy system, they’re missing out.”