The Country Club Plaza has decided that energy efficient LED lights are ready for the big time.
When the switch is flipped for the 85th annual KCP&L Plaza Lighting Ceremony this Thanksgiving, 85 percent of the bulbs will be LEDs instead of the traditional colored lights that people have been accustomed to seeing.
An LED — which stands for light emitting diode — emits light when a diode is activated, while an incandescent bulb uses power to heat up a piece of wire to provide the light. The standard Plaza holiday bulbs use 10 watts each, while the more energy efficient LED bulbs use 0.46 watts each.
Highwoods Properties, which owns the Plaza, began researching LED lights about 10 years ago to see how well the new technology would match the old. But for a decades-old tradition that garners international press and evokes strong nostalgic feelings for Kansas Citians, the Plaza had to wait until efficiency met aesthetics.
In 2010, Highwoods started the transition by lining Plaza towers with LED green lights that best matched the green of traditional bulbs. As other LED colors and sizes became available, the rollout continued. Sometimes an entire display was changed out or one color in a three-color display was switched.
Highwoods couldn’t say what percentage of its holiday display was glowing with LED lights in the 2013 season, nor would it disclose how much it has spent on the LED conversion.
But the company is celebrating the near full LED display for this season, and it hopes to be 100 percent LED for 2015.
“That’s if they come up with a really beautiful match for the biggest bulb that we use in a variety of colors and in a variety of places here on the Plaza,” said Gayle Terry, a spokeswoman for the shopping, entertainment and office district. “It is important for us to be efficient but it is equally as important that these lights be as beautiful as everyone remembers and expects them to be.”
Terry McGowan, director of engineering for the American Lighting Association, said the Plaza is known for being picky about its holiday lights, so it’s a big deal that the Plaza has chosen LEDs.
“They do a business in nostalgia, and they don’t want to upset the viewers,” he said.
Holiday light bulbs were exempted from the federal law that’s phasing out other incandescent bulbs, so there is no requirement that they be used.
But LEDs have become increasingly popular for home and commercial use, with promises of energy savings of roughly 80 percent and plummeting prices to buy them. The giant scoreboard at Kauffman Stadium, for example, glows with LEDs.
The larger Christmas lights, popular for outdoor use, can recoup most of their cost in the first year and they last far longer than incandescent bulbs.
But LEDs have had their critics. For example, there have been complaints about strings of the holiday lights that had a slight flicker, or white lights with a blue tint.
And despite price declines, the LEDs that consumers buy in stores are still more expensive than the traditional lights. One strand of 25 LEDs costs about $25, compared with $16 for a strand of 25 incandescents.
General Electric introduced pre-assembled Christmas lights in 1903. Noma Electric Co., which had a big plant in St. Joseph, at one time cornered the market for Christmas lights.
Worried about sales in the Great Depression, the company featured nostalgic advertisements of families gathered around a lighted tree. Sales rose and the company survived. (Noma went bankrupt in the 1960s because of foreign imports.)
McGowan said technical improvements have made LEDs ready for prime time. LEDs are able to provide the “saturated’ colors needed for holiday lights.
“There’s never been a time like there is now for the lighting industry,” he said.
LEDs have already made big inroads in commercial holiday displays. Disney World in Florida uses them, as does Rockefeller Center’s big Christmas tree in New York. Santa Claus, Ind., has them in 300 displays along more than a mile.
Silver Dollar City, the tourist attraction near Branson, started using LEDs in 2005 on a five-story Christmas tree that features 350,000 lights.
While incandescent bulbs are still used in some decorations, LEDs have become a major player in the 5 million lights now used for Silver Dollar City’s holiday display. A holiday light parade is being added this year, with each float decorated with 20,000 LED bulbs.
“We’re absolutely fans of LED technology,” said Brad Thomas, president of Silver Dollar City Attractions.