Many Americans every year set their clocks to go off in the wee hours of the morning, or don’t get any sleep at all, on the Friday after Thanksgiving in order to participate in America’s unofficial national holiday: Black Friday. The story goes that retail companies, operating at a loss all year, finally make a profit when bargain-hunting shoppers descend on stores looking for Christmas presents for their loved ones (and themselves). This shopping extravaganza, which has only been around for about 30 years, has become part of the American holiday tradition.
However, Black Friday could just as easily refer to an annual electrical blackout if not for those responsible for managing America’s electrical grid. Every year on the day after Thanksgiving many Americans also plug in their outdoor Christmas light displays for the first time. This tradition dates back to 1880 when Thomas Edison displayed the first set of outdoor Christmas lights at his Menlo Park Laboratory. This seemingly harmless holiday tradition creates one of the largest single day increases in electricity use in the country as millions of Americans let out their inner Clark Griswold. This annual surge in holiday cheer creates a challenge for electrical grid operators, who are responsible for making sure that there are sufficient electrical generation and transmission resources available to meet the demand for electricity on every day of the year.
Because there is not much utility scale energy storage connected to the grid to date, when Americans turn on their Christmas light displays at sunset, grid operators have to dispatch additional electrical generation by either ramping up a generator that is already running or turning on a new generator to meet that increased demand for electricity. Because different types of electrical generation take longer than others to ramp up, and others are not available on-demand, means that the price of energy varies over time and space. (Press the “Playback” button after opening the link to see a time lapse of locational marginal energy prices over the last 48 hours.)
According to a 2008 U.S. Energy Department study, decorative seasonal lights accounted for 6.6 billion kilowatt hours of electricity consumption every year in the United States. While that’s just 0.2% of the country’s total electricity usage, it’s also more than the national electricity consumption of many developing countries, such as El Salvador, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nepal, or Cambodia.
That’s a lot of electricity, and that doesn’t even consider the inflatable Santas and reindeer popping up in people’s yards. So the next time you are driving around admiring your neighborhood’s Christmas light displays, be thankful that when your neighbors plugged in their lights last Black Friday that the electricity didn’t go out on the entire street. Otherwise you may not have known which websites to go to for the best deals on Cyber Monday.
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