In 35 years America has cut its energy intensity in half, getting exactly nowhere.

energy use chart

The press release from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), celebrating its 35th anniversary, touts how far we have come in 35 years.

Energy efficiency has made major strides in the US in the last 35 years, with “energy intensity” – the measurement of energy used per dollar of gross domestic product – down from 12.1 thousand Btus per dollar in 1980 to 6.1 thousand Btus per dollar in 2014.

Alas, this is one of those “the glass is half full or half empty” scenarios. Because energy intensity has little to do with how much energy is actually used. In fact, while we are using it more efficiently, we are using a whole lot more of it.

The ACEEE report notes significant changes in energy consumption:

  • The energy use of new clothes washers has declined by more than 70 percent.
  • The energy use of new homes per square foot has declined by nearly 20 percent.
  • Industrial energy use per unit value of product is down by nearly 40 percent.
  • The fuel economy of passenger vehicles has improved by more than 25 percent.
  • Energy losses in the US electric transmission and distribution system have declined by more than 25 percent.

house size increases© Increase in house size

But all those energy savings in new homes have been eaten up by increased house size; we are now consuming more energy per capita on housing. Then there are those fuel economy savings in passenger vehicles. As cars got more efficient, more people turned to SUVs. Thank you, Stanley Jevons. And right now, according to the Financial Times, people are packing in the efficient cars and buying big again.

US auto sales are humming, hitting annualised rates of more than 17m in May and June, their highest levels since 2005, according to Motor Intelligence, a data provider. This has been propelled by bumper sales of SUVs and pick-up trucks, which sometimes go as little as 15 miles per gallon of fuel, compared with 40 miles for a small car.

Now it is true that there have been remarkable energy savings; America has grown significantly in 35 years but its energy use has not gone up nearly as quickly. (GDP is up 149% and energy consumption “only” 26%)

sankey livermore© Lawrence Livermore Laboratory

But the mix has changed; comparing these Sankey graphs from 1980 and 2013, the gain is almost all in petroleum as we drive more cars further. In the residential sector, we are using less natural gas and more electricity as air conditioning comes to dominate consumption.

The ACEEE is justifiably proud of the progress that has been made in significantly reducing the energy use per capita. But the overall result is that we are working harder to get precisely nowhere, still burning 18 quads of coal in our power plants and 35 quads of petroleum in our cars.

What about the next 35 years?

opportunities for future© ACEEE

They have good suggestions, including the promotion of ultra-low energy buildings, the increased use of advanced vehicles, neatly tying up some of the benefits and problems of self-driving cars:

Rapid technology advances are occurring in the areas of interconnected and autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles. As a result, lower vehicle weights will become possible in the long term, as crash avoidance supersedes crash mitigation, and this will further reduce fuel consumption. Net energy impacts are less clear, however, because such vehicles could spur substantial increases in miles traveled.

Their position on sustainable development and transportation is also one that many urbanists would share:

Changing development patterns can also result in substantial energy savings. For example, in 2009, the average single-family home used 38 million Btus per resident while the average multifamily unit used 27 million Btus per resident (both site energy use) (EIA 2013a). Density, land use mix, connectivity, and accessibility are key urban form drivers of energy use (Seto et al. 2014). Higher densities make increased use of public and self-powered transportation possible and can also enable ride sharing, facilitated by such services as Uber and Lyft.

“self powered transportation”- walking and biking deserve more space than self-driving cars, but that’s the way it goes in America.

This is where one gets into the glass is half full thing. Tremendous progress over 35 years, but we are still pumping out as much CO2 as ever. Tremendous opportunity over the next 35 years, but so far to go with so little political will. The report concludes:

There is much work to be done, but these efforts will lead to multiple benefits in terms of lower energy bills, a stronger economy, improved energy security, and a cleaner environment. The past shows what efficiency can do and teaches us important lessons that can guide us to be even more efficient in the future.

I hope for all our sakes that they are right.

In 35 years America has cut its energy intensity in half, getting exactly nowhere.
Is this glass half empty or half full?

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