Pssst … want to know why the climate conference sputtered at The Hague? Published reports cited disagreements about trees. Well, the trees in question might well have been of the Christmas variety — because, of course, the U.S. delegation needed to return home in time to string up the traditional holiday lights. You heard it here first.

Lite brite, in Seattle.

Photo: Nathan James.

Among the surfeit of unpleasant consumer forces unleashed by The Holidays — from motorized Caddyshack gophers to commercials with more intelligence than the toys they flak, from virgin egg-beater-nog to post-Thanksgiving parking-lot scrums — the ubiquitous “decorative lightbulbs” get off remarkably, er, light. The bulbs’ free ride may come to an end now that acute power shortages in the state of California have led regulators to call for a cutback on super-charged holiday cheer. Even SeaWorld has put its 320-foot Holiday Tree of Lights on a diet, turning it off until the power crisis has been averted. As a rule, though, America’s appetite for decorative bulbs, both tacky and tasteful, remains unchecked.

Shiny No-Nos

I’ll be the first to admit that holiday lighting can be pretty in its place. Last Christmas Eve, my family wound up driving deep into the night through northern New York. The occasional pointillist murals of light along the way certainly helped revive our flagging spirits. But these were humble lights — not gala displays seeking First Contact via yuletide spirit or hackneyed constellations designed by color-blind elves from the Hallmark School of Design. It is these extravagant displays that make you wonder: Is that weapon-grade plutonium in Rudolph’s nose?

The Energy Information Administration — a statistical agency of the U.S. Department of Energy — claims to have no data on the electrical appetite of holiday decorations. Not that the feds are secular: The Consumer Product Safety Commission issues “holiday safety tips,” warning that hospital emergency rooms treat about 8,700 people annually for injuries incurred while trying to bring joy to the world. Christmas tree fires alone result in an average of 20 deaths and millions of dollars in property damage every year.

Even putting death and disfigurement aside, the numbers associated with holiday lights are damning. Steve Krauss, a corporate spokesperson for my neighborhood utility — Madison Gas and Electric Company — reports that a standard 100-mini-bulb string might set you back 70 cents over a month. The larger 25-bulb outdoor string will set you back about three bucks over the same period. “It’s pretty negligible, even though it appears there are a lot of lights,” he says. “For the month of December it’s about 1.5 percent of our entire electric load.”

But that depends (to paraphrase our outgoing president) on your definition of negligible. For a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation I hailed Dave Blecker, a friend and vice president of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association. Assume that 15 percent of all U.S. households use holiday lights, and that each house uses 10 50-watt strings; that’s about 500 watts of demand. Compound that across a string-strangled nation, and you’re looking at 4,932 Megawatts (MW) of power. With the average nuclear power plant running to 1,000 MW, “almost five nuclear power plants are required just to deck your halls,” says Blecker.

… and screw the environment.

Of course, most of our electricity is produced by fossil fuel power plants. “They produce carbon dioxide (CO2) to help warm our planet, sulfur dioxide to help rid our lakes of fish and our forests of trees and, of course, oxides of nitrogen so we can choke on smog during ever warmer summer days (see CO2),” he rants. “Based on average power plant emission rates as reported by the Department of Energy, the use of Christmas lights for six hours a day over a 45-day holiday season results in about 885,000 tons of CO2, 4,800 tons of SO2, and 2,800 tons of smog. Merry Christmas!”

And those numbers are probably conservative. California Independent System Operator, the nonprofit agency that oversees 75 percent of the state’s power supply, estimates that in California alone Christmas lights draw an extra 1,000 MW — enough to power 1 million homes.

So what’s a Claus-spirited family to do? In the words of Michael Welch, associate editor of Home Power (“the hands-on journal of home-made power”), “We don’t want to start putting candles on the trees again. That was a failure.” Off-the-grid products such as those showcased in Home Power are one alternative. And Backwoods Solar Electric Systems features LED light strings that sip just six watts — scarcely one-tenth the suck of an average string of lights.

Ambient, Tasteless, or Both?

Dave Crawford, executive director of the International Dark-Sky Association, points out that we can actually learn something from Christmas lighting. “Christmas trees generally use nice, low-level lighting,” he says. “We don’t floodlight our Christmas trees with 1,000 watts because that doesn’t make them look nice. It’s an example of the kind of lighting we should use; improve the ambience rather than destroy it by turning the night into day.”

Of course, ambience (some might call it “taste”) is not exactly the American way. There are times when it seems that every neighborhood features a holiday fantasia designed by Martha Stewart and installed by Tim “The Toolman” Taylor.

Tasteful climate change.

But there is a high-end Christmas lighting business. “We turn so much business away,” marvels Richard Lentz of Lentz Landscape Lighting in Dallas. His customers pay anywhere from the low hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars to make sure Santa has good landing lights. “On some of the large trees, you may have as many as four to six dedicated circuits just for that one tree,” says Lentz. “Some people actually have electrical panels that are only intended to do their Christmas lighting — panels large enough for an entire house for most people.”

Lentz has no idea how much people are paying their utilities to fulfill their Santa envy, but he does know he’s not getting rich. “I do not charge our normal street rates,” he says. “It’s not my belief to cash in on Christmas.” Not everyone rewards Lentz’s Christian generosity. “When somebody else is paying a professional to do it, every light off the house has to go in the same direction,” he says. “These people have parties all through the holiday season. You get a call at 5:30 saying, ‘I’ve got a party starting in an hour and I’ve got a strand out. I need you here to take care of it.’”

Clearly, Christmas can’t handle much more in the way of illumination. In our annual season of excess, we would do well to study the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, a.k.a. the Festival of Lights. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of a small cruse of oil — normally enough to last an evening — enduring for eight nights. No doubt energy officials in California are praying for a similar miracle at this very moment.