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Energy Efficiency Improvements Have Largely Offset Effect of More, Larger Homes

graph of factors influencing changes in residential delivered energy between 1980 and 2009, as explained in the article text

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Drivers of Household Energy Consumption

The growth in residential energy use has slowed to below the rate of household growth, meaning that per-household energy consumption has decreased. Analysis of EIA’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) conducted since 1980 shows how improvements in energy efficiency reduced energy intensity enough to offset more than 70% of the growth in both the number of households and the size of dwellings.

Between 1980 and 2009 (the most recent survey year), delivered energy used by U.S. households increased from 9.3 quadrillion British thermal units (quads) to 10.2 quads, an average growth of 0.3% per year. The change in delivered energy during this period can be broken into component factors, including number of households, structural changes (the mix of housing types, the geographic distribution of households, and changes in average floor area), weather, and energy intensity (measured here as consumption per square foot). After adjusting for the effects of the other factors, 2009 energy intensity declined (improved) by about 37% compared with the level in 1980, meaning that without this change, households would have required another 3.6 quads of delivered energy in 2009. The effects of reduced energy intensity are significantly greater when considered in terms of primary energy use, which takes into account that, on average, nearly three units of energy from primary fuels such as coal, natural gas, and nuclear fuel are used to generate one unit of electricity, which is a major part of energy use in households.

Energy intensity changes are influenced by factors such as energy prices, shifts in household energy fuel sources, consumer preferences for increased comfort and entertainment options, and increasingly efficient technologies. Programs designed to increase the adoption of efficient technologies such as residential appliance standards, building codes, incentives, energy labeling (such as the voluntary ENERGY STAR® program), and other informational programs also work to decrease consumption.

The gains from energy intensity improvements would have been even larger if it were not for consumer preferences for larger homes and increased adoption of home appliances and electronics. In this period, the average home size grew by about 20%. With increased square footage came adoption of more and larger devices such as more televisions with larger screens and new or expanding end uses such as computers, networking equipment, and home entertainment devices.

From 1980 to 2009, the population center of the United States continued to shift farther west and south, but this regional effect only lowered consumption by about 2.7%. Similarly, the makeup of the sector changed, as there was a shift away from detached (standalone) single-family homes and apartments in smaller buildings to attached single-family homes and apartments in larger buildings. Again, this effect was minimal, only accounting for a 1.7% reduction in energy consumption. Weather-related factors, which account for much of the variation in year-over-year comparisons, had little impact between 1980 and 2009, as these specific years had roughly similar weather.

Additional analysis of delivered energy consumption as well as separate sections for electricity and natural gas space heating are included in EIA’s report on Drivers of U.S. Household Energy Consumption.

Principal contributors: Behjat Hojjati, Steve Wade

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 20, 2015 5:12 pm GMT

Behjat, the glass-half-empty title would be “More, Larger Homes More Than Offset Effect of Energy Efficiency Improvements”, but yours has a nicer ring to it.

That overall household energy consumption is nearly unchanged over the last 35 years is a remarkable accomplishment. Like solar panel efficiency, however, there will likely be diminishing returns henceforth, emphasizing the need for clean, abundant energy generation.

If humans were even half as predictable as dogs, we might be able to incorporate a Stefan-Boltzmann-type factor, as the IPCC does with calculating the negative feedback of blackbody radiation of the earth, into human behavior – allowing us to predict how further efficiency gains might affect energy consumption. But we forever risk the invention of a new energy-intensive gadget which throws our best efforts into disarray. So here’s to energy efficiency – let’s celebrate it while we can.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Feb 20, 2015 5:04 pm GMT


Yeah, if this current weather pattern is a result of climate change, we will be really hurting — drought and heat in the west, the jet stream bringing the Arctic air over the midwest and east coast while Alaska and Siberia are above average, and warm water off the coast of New England generating snow by the foot. The energy consumption in the east is incredible right now. And the impact of the snow and cold on GDP will show in the statistics.

Many who like to shrug off climate change say we can just migrate. Right. Move to Alaska.

Anchorage is 8 degrees F warmer than Washington DC.


Wayne Lusvardi's picture
Wayne Lusvardi on Feb 22, 2015 8:26 am GMT

That there are people who resist “climate change” theory is a straw man argument.  There are no such people.  Everyone knows that millenia ago Los Angeles was a swamp with dinosaurs in part due to the shifting of tectonic plates. 

Climate change, as propounded by its advocates, would be like shifting Minnespolis, Minnesota to Mumbai, India (aka Bombay) along the Equator. How would that be so catastrophic?  And when would it occur? A million or billion years from now?  And would that occur due to human caused warming or the shift of tectonic plates? 

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