Your Fridge Consumes More Energy Than People Do in Some Countries

It is a cold demonstration of energy inequality.

European fridge
A standard European home fridge.

Carol Yepes / Getty Images

The average American refrigerator uses more electricity annually than the average person in many countries consumes in an entire year. Siobhan McDonough writes in VOX, "The issue isn’t that Americans should be going without air conditioners, let alone refrigerators. It’s that the world needs to prioritize how to get much higher levels of energy to the poorest countries in the world."

But it does point out once again that the North American refrigerator is a monster. McDonough's fridge consumes 450 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, running compressors that move heat from inside the fridge to the kitchen surrounding it, where it is likely that for much of the year, air conditioning systems are moving the heat once again to the outside. And McDonough's fridge isn't even that big of an energy hog: On Treehugger's list of the six best energy-efficient refrigerators, four of the six used considerably more, with the Treehugger best pick consuming 602 kWh.

Meanwhile, according to World Bank, the average per capita electrical consumption is 302 kWh in Bangladesh, 805 kWh in India, and 508 kWH in Pakistan. These are countries where the temperatures are over 100 degrees Fahrenheit this spring and where people could use a few kilowatts of cooling. 

Small kitchens make good cities
Small kitchens make good cities.

Williamson Chong

This once again raises the question of whether our fridges should be so big and power-hungry. In 2007, I saw a kitchen exhibit designed by Toronto architect Donald Chong titled "Small Kitchens Make Good Cities" based on the thesis that people with small fridges shop every day and support their local butcher and baker. That's what many people do in Europe and why their fridges are often so small.

In 2017, I had to admit that I had it backward, noting you have to get the city and the neighborhood right first, living in one that is walkable and rollable–for bikes, buggies, and wheelchairs. A city where you can find the butcher, baker, and the grocery store, concluding, "In the end, I find that small fridges don’t make good cities; it’s more accurate to say that good cities make small fridges."

Kelvinator Foodarama
An ad for the Kelvinator Foodarama.


In North America, the fridge is part of an economic system designed to maximize convenience and consumption, where you drive your big car to the big grocery store to buy big packages that go into your big fridge. This goes back to the post-war years. As Sandy Isenstadt wrote in "Visions of Plenty: Refrigerators in America around 1950":

"The refrigerator functioned as off-site inventory storage for a growing food industry. To facilitate this, it was portrayed as consumer empowerment: flattening temperature variations, keeping foods 'indefinitely', meant more efficient use of domestic capital. As an in-home showcase of the greater market, the refrigerator of the 1950s was a tableau of the industrialized food chain, a visualization of a capitalist landscape."

Treehugger Derek Markham never thought much of my small fridges theory, and sounds much like Isenstadt on consumer empowerment. He makes the case that "for the time-stressed and uber-frugal, having a large fridge, freezer, and pantry can be the better choice, as it allows us to take better advantage of seasonal foods and sale items, as well as offer a bit of food security and help to support better year-round nutrition on a budget." Treehugger's Katherine Martinko has said much the same thing.

energy use per person

Our World in Data

But the small fridge remains part of a bigger picture of energy consumption, and of what we have described as a culture of sufficiency. The fridge doesn't stand alone. As the Energy Sufficiency Project people note:

"We can live happily with a smaller fridge, but only if it ‘makes sense’ for us to shop frequently for fresh food.  The infrastructure needed for this to happen is a store selling the food we want at a price we are happy with on a route that we use every day.  If this does not exist, we are more likely to choose a pattern of shopping that requires greater cold storage space and hence a larger fridge. To influence this, we need to look beyond energy efficiency policy to land-use and urban planning policies and practices."

We will never get rid of energy inequality by bringing everyone's consumption up to North American or European standards; the carbon emissions would cook us all. We also have to reduce our level of consumption as well, to what is sufficient, to what is enough. That might well mean living in walkable/rollable communities where the park is our backyard and Main Street is our big fridge and pantry.

View Article Sources
  1. "Electricity Explained." Energy Information Administration.

  2. "Electric Power Consumption (kWh Per Capita)." The World Bank.