New Study Finds That Being a Couch Potato Is Green

Promo image. Slanket/ The future we want

Years ago, before there was Amazon Prime, TreeHugger concluded that online shopping used less energy than driving to the mall. Now a new study, Changes in Time Use and Their Effect on Energy Consumption in the United States, concludes that many of the technological changes of the last 15 years, from online shopping to Netflix, are contributing to Americans using less energy than they used to.

research summary

© Ashok Sekar et al via Joule

This research tracks lifestyle changes in the United States through changes in times spent on different activities and measures the associated energy effects. We find that Americans are spending more time at home and correspondingly less time traveling and in offices and stores. We find that more time at home implies lower energy consumption due to reduced automobile travel and energy use in non-residential buildings.
The amount of energy saved is not insignificant, 1,700 trillion BTU in 2012, 1.8% of the national to

change in hours

© Ashok Sekar et al via Joule

Americans are also apparently spending 8 more days lolling in front of the big screen at home. They are working at home more, sleeping in and eating and drinking at home. They are reading for personal interest a lot less. Unfortunately, the study doesn't track how much time people are spending on exercise but it doesn't appear that Americans are getting out much any more.

When I first read the study, I thought that perhaps it was a demographic thing- the population is aging and those boomers don't get out like they used to. But the study accounts for that:


© Ashok Sekar et al via Joule

The notable trend for all groups except >65-year-olds is a considerable increase in time spent at home, 5–33 hr per year, which corresponds to an astounding 5–14 days more at home in 2012 compared with 2003. This additional time in residences comes at the expense of time spent traveling and in non-residential buildings. The population aged between 18 and 24 shows the most dramatic change, 14 additional days at home in 2012 compared with 2003, balanced by 4 days less traveling and 10 hr less time in non-residential buildings.

So the aging boomers are actually getting out more because more of them are still working. Young people apparently are barely getting out of bed; the 24-65 cohort are all staying at home a lot more. According to the New York Times coverage of this study,

matrix pods

Neo at home/ The Matrix/Screen capture

Eric Williams, an associate professor of sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology, made the point a different way. “This is a little tongue in cheek, but you know in ‘The Matrix’ everyone lives in those little pods? For energy, that’s great,” he said, because living in little pods would be pretty efficient. “In the Jetsons, where everyone is running around in their jet cars, that’s terrible for energy.”

The study doesn't account for all the energy being used to run the servers at Netflix and other streaming services, which according to Recode now eat up 70 percent of broadband usage, or the jets delivering Amazon Prime overnight, which might eat up a fair bit of the energy saved.

But more than anything else, it is sad, all those young people sitting at home watching Netflix. As we keep saying on TreeHugger to all the kids: go outside and play.