New Survey Shows Electronics Hampering Progress for Energy Efficient Homes


Photo Credit: mbowlersr/creative commons

For 30 years, Americans have invested their money into making their homes more energy efficient. For example, Energy Star has built an entire market of electricity-saving appliances and equipment. More recently, the push to weatherize residential units has been made to reduce the need for power. But a new survey from the Energy Information Agency, a statistical & analytical agency of the U.S. Dept of Energy, shows these measures are not doing enough to improved performance. Why? The short answer is electronics...the more correct and real answer is much more complex.
Graphic Credit: U.S Energy Information Agency

In the late 1970's, homes in the US were using about 10.6 quadrillion BTUs every year. Today that number is practically the same. It shouldn't be. If you look at different types of systems used in houses, you can easily find options that consume less natural gas, electricity and other fuels. Heating systems have greatly improved during the last three decades. The same can be said for air-conditioners, furnaces, boilers and other devices. But homes are bigger, meaning they have more interior space and thereby take more energy to run. Another contributing factor is that more people today have access to things such as central cooling and air-conditioning in general. According to the survey, energy consumed by air-conditioners has multiplied more than 250 percent. This is also because of where homes are being built - namely a huge jump in construction of residential units in the South where it is warmer more often throughout the year.


Graphic Credit: U.S Energy Information Agency

That's not to say homes today use more energy. In fact, comparing the average residential units from the 1978 to 2005, you will find they use less. Though the overall amount of energy used is relatively the same, the actual number of homes has increased by many million during the same time period. In 1978, there were 76.6 million while in 2005 that number had grown to more than 111 million. For example, most people have installed such innovations as double or triple-pane energy-efficient windows - 80 percent of all new houses have them as the standard window type. Likewise, consumption of energy for heating has decline during the same period of time because of efficiencies in boilers, furnaces and heat pumps. This is a sign that measures to make residential units more energy efficient is working...to a point. For the same reason the amount of energy for cooling as increase has contributed to the decrease of heating - people are moving to warmer climates. That's not the only reason for the stagnate levels of energy consumed.


Graphic Credit: U.S Energy Information Agency

The problem comes when you evaluate other changes in behavior. Improved living standards resulted in more households buying and using major appliances. In the late 1970's may people didn't have access to central air conditioning - access has nearly tripled, from 23 percent in 1978 to 61 percent in 2009. Another major changes is the share of residential electricity used by appliances and electronics. It, too, has nearly doubled from 17 percent to 31 percent. Almost 50 percent on all households own one computer while nearly 40 percent of households own 2, 3, 4 or 5 computers. In 1978, no one owned computers.

The same is true for televisions. Today, only about 2 % of the population does not own a TV while 88 percent of people own two or more of them. The biggest changes comes from rechargeable electronic devices - they are the newest additional to daily life. Practically every household in the country owns 1 to 3 of them while around 40 percent own 4 to 9 rechargeable devices. It is fairly safe to assume both personal computers and rechargeable devices are not going away. In fact, as society becomes more dependent on them for communication, social interaction and telecommuting, the number will greatly increase. And that translates into more energy used.


Graphic Credit: U.S Energy Information Agency

Most of the appliances and devices used in homes today have energy efficiency options, and many people buy such things as Energy Star computers and television not knowing it. However, a common response to owning a product that is cheaper to operate means it is use more often and for longer periods of time. Though the EIA survey does not dive into any predictions or remedies, one thing is for sure. If we intend to own devices like cellphones, iPads, laptops and other rechargeables, weatherizing homes with better windows will not be enough. Nor will energy efficient appliances be enough. We may have to rethink the whole technological revolution growing up around us. Just because something uses LESS energy doesn't mean you should own MORE of them.

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