Computers and Appliances: Today's Home-Based Energy Hogs

03/12/2013 05:36 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2013

The Energy Information Administration is touting the fact that "heating and cooling" now comprise less than half of our residential energy usage. But that's only half the story.

President Carter's fireside chat on energy

On February 2, 1977 President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation on issues and concerns related to energy. Among the items covered was conservation. In the years since, Americans' energy consumption has changed. We take a look. (Courtesy: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)Used to be that most of our residential energy bucks went to heating and cooling our homes. In 1978, for example, almost 70 percent of the energy used in American homes went to space heating (66 percent) and cooling (3 percent). Who can forget, of those of us who were old enough to watch, President Jimmy Carter sitting by a fireplace wearing a cardigan sweater urging all Americans to help the country weather the ongoing energy crisis by setting our daytime thermostats to 65 degrees? (Watch video or read a transcript of Carter's address to the nation. Read more on the "world energy problem" [pdf] from the '70s.)

But change would soon be a comin'. In the 1980s Congress passed legislation mandating higher energy efficiency. In 1992 the voluntary labeling program known as Energy Star was created, a joint program of the Environmental Protection Agency and eventually the Energy Department (which became a Cabinet-level department during Carter's watch) that aims "to identify and promote energy-efficient products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." And lo and behold our home energy consumption began to slowly creep downward -- from about 114 million British Thermal Units (BTUs) per household in 1980 to 89.6 million BTUs in 2009 (the most recent year for which we have statistics). Not bad, just about a 20 percent drop.

energy consumption chart

Source: Energy Information Administration's Residential Energy Consumption Survey. Includes occupied primary housing units only.

Of course that per household drop has not translated into as large a drop in total residential energy because there are a lot more U.S. homes now: 113.6 million today compared to just 76.6 million in 1978. Between 1978 and 2009 total residential energy use decreased ever so slightly from 10.58 quadrillion BTUs (quads) to 10.18 quads.

Space Heating Success Story

The star in the story of America's home-energy belt-tightening has got to be space heating. Many of the details of that hearth-warming tale can be found in the Energy Information Administration's report [pdf] "How Americans Are Using Energy in Their Homes Today" by Bill McNary and Chip Berry.

The year after Jimmy Carter in his memorable cardigan addressed the nation about conserving energy, Americans were consuming a total of about 7 quads of energy per year to heat our homes. In 2005 we were using only 4.3 quads, and in 2009, just 4.2 quads. That's a decrease of almost 40 percent, and, don't forget, over a period when the total number of households was increasing by about 28 percent.

How did we do that? McNary and Berry point to "federal standards, voluntary programs [such as adjusting thermostats down], and housing envelope improvements such as better insulation and improved windows." Jimmy Carter may have been ridiculed for his cardigan sweater (see here and here), but that little fireside chat may have actually made a difference.

Appliances: The Other Side of the Coin

But while heating-energy use was plummeting in the United States, another energy sink was growing: the power needed to run our appliances and electronics. In 1978 we used about 1.77 quads of energy to power our appliances and electronics; in 2005 that had climbed to 3.25 quads; and in 2009 it had reached 3.5 quads -- an increase of a factor of two in 30 years.

And so U.S. residential energy use is slowly being put on its head. In 1978, heating and cooling consumed about 70 percent of our residential energy while appliances and electronics sipped a paltry 17 percent. Today heating and air conditioning have fallen to just 48 percent while appliances and electronics have grown to 35 percent.

Evidence of a Consumer Nation Doing Its Thing

How could this have happened? It certainly wasn't because appliances became less efficient. Our Energy Star program is alive and well and pushing efficiency. As an example, a new refrigerator today is about 70 percent more efficient than one from the 1970s.

So what gives? Consumerism, that's what. Over the decades, we've taken to acquiring more and more electricity-consuming stuff in our homes.

Take televisions. In 1978 the average household had one; today American households have on average about two and a half. Microwave ovens? The roughly 8 percent of households owning microwaves [pdf] in 1978 has risen to almost 100 percent today. The number of households with a second refrigerator has just about doubled from ~14 percent to ~ 23 percent. And then there are all the DVRs and DVD players and the now-ubiquitous PC. In 1978 personal computers were just beginning to trickle into the marketplace but were in nowhere near the kind of high demand they are in today while DVRs and DVD players were not even on the scene yet (VCRs, now outmoded of course, were also popping up in American living rooms in the late '70s).

Nowadays most of us have any number of these computers and devices spinning their hard drives day and night. Not to mention all the rechargeable thingies we have lying about.

What's to Be Done?

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has an idea: another round of energy-efficiency standards. An analysis by the group -- which has taken the Obama administration to task for missing "deadline after deadline for completing new or updated standards" for appliances -- suggests that new and/or updated standards could have saved the American economy $3.7 billion and counting. For each month these standards go unchanged, the group reports, another $300 million in savings are lost.

It's hard to argue against upping efficiency standards, but I doubt that by themselves such changes will solve the problem. It's well established that energy efficiency gains can be frustrated by our thirst to consume more and more. Need an illustration? Well ... what about appliances and electronics? Thanks to the Energy Star program, appliances and electronics have become way more efficient and yet total energy consumption from appliances and electronics has skyrocketed for reasons noted above.

Could it be that we also need to figure out a way to live without the latest, must-have electronic gadget -- like my friend who's still using the original iPad? Perhaps we could all channel a little bit of Graham Hill's modern version of the unaccommodated man (albeit with a lot of cash on hand). Barring that, perhaps we can just find the discipline to turn our stuff off when not in use, you think?

Crossposted with TheGreenGrok and National Geographic

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