'Tis the Season for Light-Emitting Diodes

The high upfront cost means this is an investment in smarter holidays.

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The nation's two most famous Christmas trees, the evergreens at Rockefeller Center and at the White House, will be festooned in light-emitting diodes for the first time this year. In fact, so many cities are getting on the energy-efficient holiday light bandwagon, it is truly the season of the LED.

But the price of this ultralow-energy illumination is still high enough that whether in a public park or in your home, you have to look at switching to efficient LEDs as an investment in the greater good, not as a money-saving choice. The nation's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, did its own testing and found that with California's relatively high power prices, the annual electricity cost of a 300-light LED display was just 43 cents, compared with $4.50 for 300 of the more typical mini-incandescent bulbs. That's a 90 percent savings!

Yet the upfront cost of an LED tree-trimming of this size would be $30 to $45, according to PG&E. (And my own online searches indicate the higher end of this range is more likely.) Home Depot has a 300-light garland of mini-incandescents for sale for $8.99. That difference of $21 to $36 means it would take five to nine years to earn back your initial holiday light outlay in lower energy costs (assuming electricity prices stayed the same). That makes LEDs quite different from the compact fluorescent bulbs used for ordinary home lighting, which are slightly more expensive than incandescent lights but have a payback period of less than a year.

That doesn't mean it's not worth laying out that extra money. LED advocates and sellers like to point out that the low-energy products last longer, and while that is undoubtedly true, I'll wager it's not a distinction likely to make much difference with most customers. Our own incandescent Christmas tree lights at home have unfortunately lasted more than 15 years. I'm sure they would continue to go strong this year, throwing off more heat than light, if we decide to string them up again.

I'm going to have to make the argument to my energy-miser husband that if everyone switched to LEDs, the nation could save about 90 percent of the 2.22 million kilowatt hours of electricity it consumes annually to illuminate miniature holiday lights—enough to power about 200 homes for a year. My husband probably will offer the option of not using holiday lights at all. I won't try to assail his logic with more logic. Instead, I'll just say, for the rest of us, who are striving for a better energy future that maintains beloved traditions of the past, look at these pretty lights! That's the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree, which began using LEDs in 2005. This year's lighting ceremony is tonight.