The Toll of the Twinkle

Sort of like that obnoxious neighbor at the end of your block, the City and County Building insists on keeping up its gaudy holiday light display long after everyone else has taken theirs down. The city’s official policy is to keep the display going until the end of the National Western Stock Show, which meant this year the 2,000 feet of LED rope lights and 1,000 spotlights were on until January 27. Considering the display went up on November 23, that’s more than two months of excessive electronic holiday cheer – which begs the question: As city leaders boast they’re preparing the “greenest political convention in history,” just how green is Denver’s signature holiday display?

Kevin Patterson, Denver ’s general services manager, says that's a good question – one city officials had never thought to answer. “I don’t think we have had the same kind of focus on trying to manage our utility use as we have had the past few years,” he says. “We are trying to ask more as a force of habit.” So Patterson had his staff attach an electricity meter to the lights display for the last few days it was up, to determine just how much energy was consumed.


They found that, over the two-month period, the lights used 22,377.62 kilowatt-hours of energy. According to this Carbon Calculator, that means the lights were responsible for 13.56 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, slightly more than the carbon dioxide emitted by an airplane flying around the world three times. While that may seem like a lot, consider that according to the U.S. government, each person in this country is responsibly for about 20 tons of carbon dioxide each year. Ouch.

The light display cost the city $1,367.72, Patterson estimates. “To be honest, I thought the cost was going to be larger than what it came in as,” he says, noting that the cost was surely higher before the city switched to LED rope lights in 2006, which he says use 80 percent less energy than the old lights.

Patterson says the findings haven’t made him consider curtailing the city’s extended holiday light program. “It hasn’t crossed my mind,” he says. Instead, the city may want to dabble in holiday horticulture. According to carbon offset proponents, a tree absorbs one ton of carbon dioxide during its lifetime. To make up for its holiday emissions, in other words, the city would have to plant 13 Christmas trees… plus a Hanukkah bush. -- Joel Warner

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner