What does 2020 mean for Thanksgiving energy consumption?

With fewer people traveling this year, what are the energy costs of our Thanksgiving feasts and family gatherings?

This year, fewer families are traveling for their holiday plans to get together, eat good food, and enjoy each others’ company.

With less people traveling this year, we wondered about the carbon footprint of Thanksgiving. What are the energy costs of our Thanksgiving feasts and family gatherings? We addressed this topic last year with insights from How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee.

With Berners-Lee’s insights, we calculated the carbon cost of Thanksgiving. In a typical year, a Thanksgiving gathering includes 12 people. With increased quarantine restrictions and the rise in COVID-19 positive cases, the average gathering size is expected to drop by 50% in 2020 to a small gathering of a half-dozen.

Above: AAA Holiday travel projections for 2020 compared to 2019

How people are traveling in 2020 has also changed drastically, with air travel projected to decrease by 47.5% and other methods of mass transportation (bus, train, cruise) projected to decrease by 76% compared to 2019. Automobile travel, however, is expected to stay relatively flat, only decreasing by about 4.3% (about 2 million people).

In 2019, we assumed that a family of four hosted the meal, with 6 people traveling 50 miles by car and 2 traveling by plane. In 2020, we’re assuming that a family of four is hosting the meal, with 3 people traveling 30 miles by car and 1 traveling by plane.

Let’s begin with the turkey. The traditional turkey at Thanksgiving is a good choice energetically. The carbon footprint of a turkey is about an eighth of the carbon cost of red meat. One reason is that turkeys fatten up quickly, going from egg to a 20-pound bird in less than three months. If you buy a locally raised turkey, you’ve reduced the transportation and refrigeration costs further. With smaller gatherings planned for this year, farmers are reporting a noticeable surplus of turkeys above 16 pounds. Don’t consider that too much of a carbon win, though. Turkeys weighing in under ~10lbs only have a slightly smaller carbon footprint than their heftier kin.

The rest of the feast, including traditional food like pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce have a relatively low carbon footprint, too. Potatoes, pumpkins, apples, and cranberries don’t require a lot of carbon-intensive packaging or refrigeration and shipping is relatively efficient, especially if they are grown in your region.

The cost of cooking a Thanksgiving meal is relatively low, too. Roasting a 12-pound turkey and other fixings in a 350-degree oven for 3 hours adds up to about ~6kWh. At an average cost of 12 cents per kWh, your electric bill increases by about 72 cents and the energy you use translate into just 0.004 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Compared to the costs of cooking a slightly larger turkey in 2019, smaller gatherings are estimated to cost $0.24 cents less in electricity and generate about .002 less metric tons of carbon dioxide than 2019. So the savings are barely discernible.

Last year we shared that the biggest carbon cost comes from travel. With our smaller family gathering, we can assume three people traveling by car and one by plane. Let’s assume there are two carloads of people, each of which is driving 75 miles for a total of 300 miles roundtrip on the road, a drive about halfway across the state of Massachusetts. One more person is flying 1,200 miles, about the distance from Miami, Florida, to Kansas City, Kansas.

We used the calculator at FlightNook to determine that one person flying roundtrip from Miami to Kansas has a carbon footprint of 382 kg of CO2 or 0.38 metric tons. The two cars will generate an average carbon footprint of 0.08 metric tons of CO2. So the holiday travelers have generated 0.46 metric tons of CO2 to come together for Thanksgiving in 2020. Compared to last year, the estimated carbon footprint of holiday travel has dropped almost 50% and could be offset by 0.6 acres of forest growth for one year, simply because fewer people are traveling. What if the air travelers had taken a train instead? The carbon cost of 2400 miles of train travel is 0.02 metric tons — 1/38th of the flight. For the travelers on the road, if both cars were hybrids with 45 MPG ratings, the carbon cost would be 0.078 metric tons; if the travelers were driving the most fuel-efficient 2019 midsize pickup trucks at 22 MPG, the carbon cost would double to 0.156 metric tons.

Whether you stay at home this holiday season or travel to family and friends, we wish you a warm, safe and healthy holiday. At Sense, we’re thankful every day for our customers who live responsibly by paying attention to their energy use and reducing their carbon footprints. Happy Thanksgiving!

To calculate the carbon footprint of your lifestyle, check out the EPA’s calculator.