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How Sustainability at Home Goes Beyond

Are Americans Really Using Less Energy?


One of the goals President Obama mentioned in his 2013 State of the Union address was to reduce the energy wasted in “American homes and businesses” by half by 2030. Energy efficiency has already caused great gains when it comes to energy use by American households.

Americans are only 4.5 percent of the world’s population, but they use almost 20 percent of its energy. According to World Population Balance, “every time an American spends a dollar, the energy equivalent of a cup of oil is used to produce what that dollar buys.”

So, is American energy use decreasing? Per-household energy use has decreased, according to EIA’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) which is based on data from 2009, the latest data available. As James Berry, who worked on the Survey, told TriplePundit, “What we can say for sure is that average consumption per home has declined the last 30 years.”

The survey has been conducted every four years since 1980. Over time, while American houses have grown, the survey has shown that energy efficiency improvements reduced energy intensity -- offsetting over 70 percent of the growth in the number of households and the size of houses. Energy intensity decreased (improved) by about 37 percent in 2009 compared to 1980. The average home size from 1980 to 2009 increased by about 20 percent and Americans adopted both more and larger devices. Data by the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy also shows that energy efficiency has caused energy use to decrease. The average U.S. home used 101,800 BTU of energy per square foot in 2012, 31 percent less than in 1970, after adjustments are made for efficiency improvements in electricity generation and weather effects.

The trend by American households of using less energy is continuing. Energy flow charts by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory showed that Americans used less energy overall in 2015. The Laboratory releases energy flow charts annually that illustrate the consumption and use of energy in the U.S. In 2015, Americans used 0.8 quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTU) less than in 2014. However, there is a catch. Natural gas use increased by three percent while coal decreased by 12 percent. Modern gas-fired power plants can use up to 46 percent less energy, so most of the overall decrease in energy consumption can be traced to the shift from coal to natural gas.

Is the larger size of houses offsetting the gains from energy efficiency? The number of housing units in the U.S. increased by 80 percent over the past four decades. Houses have become bigger while they have also become energy efficient. But as the Pew Research Center puts it, the increase in the size of homes “wipes out nearly all efficiency gains.” The average home in 2012 was an estimated 1,864 square feet, 28 percent larger than the average home in 1970. And new homes are getting bigger and bigger. The average home completed in 2014 was 2,657 square feet, 57 percent bigger than in 1970. A 2013 report by the Energy Information Administration found that U.S. homes built in 2000 and later are 30 percent larger than homes built before 2000 and use two percent more energy. As a blog post by EIA pointed out that there would have been more gains from energy intensity improvements “if it were not for consumer preferences for larger homes and increased adoption of home appliances and electronics.”

There is a caveat with larger homes. “If you look at people who live in newer and larger homes, they tend to have double pane windows” Berry said. “Their homes are more insulated.” He added that while we are building bigger homes, they are consuming about as much energy as older homes. And much of that has to do with energy efficiency.

Location and size really do make a difference

Where Americans live matters when it comes to energy use. Some states use more electricity than others. While the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 10,812 kilowatt hours (kWh) in 2015, the average for Louisiana was 15,435 kWh per residential customer, the highest annual electricity consumption among the states. Hawaii had the lowest at 6,166 kWh per residential customer. The population center of the U.S. from 1980 to 2009 continued to shift to the west and south. That shift lowered energy use by about 2.7 percent as populations relocated to more temperate climates.

There is an encouraging trend that might lead to Americans using even less energy, and that trend is tiny houses. It is hard to find exact numbers for the number of tiny houses in America, but there is a site that provides what it calls the Tiny House Map. It shows the people across the country who are building tiny houses. There are people building them in nearly every state. A tiny house is typically is about 100 to 400 square feet. A smaller house uses much less energy. An infographic on TinyHouseBuild.com illustrates the environmental benefits of a tiny house. A 2,598 square foot homes uses 12,773 kWh of energy a year, while a 186 square foot home uses only 1,144 kWh.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

Read more stories by Gina-Marie Cheeseman