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Which Burns More Kilowatt-Hours: America's Christmas Lights Or Tanzania?

Onlookers come to admire the self-proclaimed "Miracle on 34th Street" in the Baltimore neighborhood of Hampden. But not every country has as much electricity as America does.
Patrick Semansky
Onlookers come to admire the self-proclaimed "Miracle on 34th Street" in the Baltimore neighborhood of Hampden. But not every country has as much electricity as America does.

A headline for a chart caught our eye this week: "US Holiday Lights Use More Electricity than El Salvador Does In a Year."

According to the chart, America burns 6.63 billion kilowatt-hours to shine its end-of-year holiday lights. By comparison, annual kilowatt-hours in the developing world are paltry. In an entire year, El Salvador uses 5.35 billion kilowatt-hours. Ethiopia is at 5.30 billion, Tanzania at 4.8 billion, Nepal at 3.28 billion and Cambodia at 3.06 billion. (Those numbers come from the World Bank.)

Todd Moss and his colleague Priscilla Agyapong put together the graphic. He's a fellow at the Center for Global Development; energy is one of his topics.

I spoke to him to learn more about his lights motif.

Are you the Grinch who wants to steal holiday lights?

No, I think Christmas lights are a good thing. A beautiful thing! I'm not trying to be anti-Christmas at all.

Then why do this comparison?

The point is twofold. One: just to show the tremendous difference in energy use between rich countries and poor countries.

What's the second point?

Some organizations have argued that poor countries should only use renewable energy sources in the future because of global concerns. I have no doubt that sub-Saharan countries, for example, are going to have a very heavy use of renewable energy technologies. But these countries have energy needs that go way beyond what current renewable technologies can deliver. Like every country of the world, poor countries are going to pursue an all-of-the-above strategy, including a mix of hydro, wind, solar, natural gas and geothermal.

Meanwhile, the U.S. isn't exactly a world leader in renewable energy.

I get an annual notice from Pepco, the power company in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, where I live. The fuel mix for D.C. and Maryland is 95.9 percent from coal, gas and nuclear; 4 percent renewable — including 2 percent wind, 0.1 percent solar.

It's pretty rich for me to sit in Washington, D.C., and tell Ghana they can't build one natural gas power plant.

The numbers for the U.S. are a little old — they're 2007 data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Does that concern you?

Obviously, energy efficiency is improving, but the average size of homes is going up and incomes go up, and those things drive how much people spend on house decorations. I would be surprised if the number in 2015 was significantly different.

What's life like in countries that don't have sufficient and reliable electricity?

The obvious things: You don't have lights and a refrigerator, or an air conditioner, but it also means you don't have steady, reliable, affordable electricity to power factories, to help grow jobs.

A country can't become wealthy or even middle class without consuming a lot more energy. All poor countries need a lot more energy. How do we provide that in a way that's smart for the planet? If we force sub-Saharan Africa to use renewables only we are forcing them to remain poor.

I imagine that poor countries use so little energy compared with the West that even if they do use more nonrenewable energy in the future, the impact on the environment wouldn't be huge.

Africa's energy mix has close to zero effect on global carbon emissions. The real action is in rich countries and China.

So what might we be thinking this season when we admire holiday lights?

Lights are something we take for granted, but a lot of countries around the world don't have enough electricity to run a refrigerator or create jobs. And we should be humble in the kind of advice we give countries about how they should develop energy sources.

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Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.