Megawatt Christmas

California may be in the midst of an energy crisis, but that's not stopping record numbers of Christmas obsessives from firing up high-voltage holiday displays.

| Sat Dec. 23, 2000 3:00 AM EST

On the lawn of an otherwise ordinary Southern California home, a wooden Santa Claus draped in twinkling lights sits at the wheel of '57 Chevy. He is flanked by a radiant manger scene, a choo-choo train outlined with dazzling strands of holiday lights, and a 10-foot sign blazing "Happy Holidays" to all who drive by.

Meanwhile, in a much less festive building across the state in Sacramento, a room full of high-powered Grinches is busy preparing a special Christmas present for all the residents of California: a hefty hike in electrical power rates. This gift -- courtesy of the legislators that deregulated the state's electricity market in 1996, thereby helping to create the current energy crunch -- raises a question for consumers whose houses are buzzing with plugged-in Christmas cheer: Might this be the year to leave the electric Santa in the closet and opt for a more energy-efficient display of holiday spirit?

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Ho ho no, responds lighting technician Bob Matthews. His Irvine-based Christmas Lighting Company has been just as busy illuminating homes this year as it ever was in trouble-free times. In fact, says Matthews, demand for holiday lighting services is growing so quickly that even a recent influx of no fewer than five local competitors has not decreased his work load in the slightest. "I keep my own lights off every once in a while because I feel directly responsible," he jokes.

The electric decoration business is shining brighter than ever nationwide, according to Jim Ketchum, CEO of Texas-based Christmas Décor, a company that franchises systems that teach people to run their own lights services. When it started in 1996, Christmas Décor lit up a total of 350 homes and businesses. This year, its 300 US and Canadian franchisees decorated a total of 350,000 homes and businesses, making it the ninth-fastest growing franchise in the US, according to Entrepreneur Magazine. "There's a lot of market that we haven't gotten to yet," says Ketchum.

Some of the more elaborate displays cost thousands of dollars and require 10,000-plus individual bulbs, many of which suck up five watts of power each. Multiply that force by millions of light-adorned homes, and the result is a power drain felt by electricity suppliers from Thanksgiving to the end of the year.

Each year, says spokesperson Lori O'Donley of the California Independent System Operator, the nonprofit group that controls the state's electrical grid and delivers power to 27 million customers, holiday lights add a 1,000-megawatt burden to the state's power suppliers. That's equivalent to the amount of energy needed to service one million homes.

O'Donley's group issued a statement earlier this month asking customers to wait until 7 p.m. to turn on their holiday lights. Since the level of power usage peaks at 6 p.m., customers who wait an extra hour to start their nightly light display help power suppliers avoid blackouts. "There are a lot of people out there who are thinking about what they turn on and when," insists O'Donley.

Maybe, but Gene Gregory isn't one of them. "My neighbors would shoot me if I turned it off," says Gregory, owner of the extravagant Chevy-Claus lawn display that has illuminated his home in a Bear Creek, Calif. gated community for the last three years. Sure, he knows about the current power situation. But Gregory feels that his contribution to holiday cheer outweighs the state's electricity woes. "It's for my kids," he says. "When I'm dead and gone I hope they'll remember Christmases at home."

Gregory estimates that he's spent $10,000 on holiday lighting and props over the years, not including the power bills that usually double over the holidays. "I'm running out of yard and I'm already out of money," he says, "but I've got another year to make some more."

California's energy suppliers might not be so lucky. This week Southern California Edison, one of the state's biggest utilities companies, announced that it might have to declare bankruptcy if the government doesn't step in soon with financial relief.

Whether that's a legitimate claim or a ploy to scare Gov. Gray Davis into approving utilities rate hikes is up for debate. ("Yeah, right. We're having a bake sale for [the utilities], they're so poor," snorts Mindy Spatt, media director of the San Francisco-based Utility Reform Network.) Either way, consumers are in for a holiday season of unreliable power. And, chances are, that electric Santa ensemble will soon cost a whole lot more.

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