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?
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