Editorial: Heating and Cooling No Longer Majority of U.S. Home Energy Use

April 28, 2013
May/June 2013
A version of this article appears in the May/June 2013 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Occasionally events that happened years ago make news today. That is exactly what happened recently when DOE announced that heating and cooling dropped to less than half of home energy use. . . in 2009. This news is not earthshaking—and our creaky data-gathering apparatus took four years to notice—but it signals both success and a need for introspection on the part of the home energy industry.

Alan Meier (Yasushi Kato)

Here’s what the Energy Information Administration (EIA) claimed. In 1993, heating and cooling energy amounted to almost 58% of home energy use. By 2009, the fraction had fallen to 48%. The EIA further claimed that the residential sector consumed essentially the same amount of energy in 2009 as it did in 1993. See Figure 1.

What is the victory? Energy consumption inside America’s homes barely changed in those 16 years, even though both population and average house size increased.

The EIA’s announcement should still be a wake-up call. We developed successful technologies and programs to restrain heating and cooling, but electricity use by appliances, consumer electronics, and miscellaneous loads continued to grow. Minimum-efficiency standards for appliances have restrained that growth, and all those CFLs and LEDs are taking a bite out of the average home’s electricity consumption. Maybe—just maybe—the growth has begun to slow. Since 2010, residential electricity consumption has been almost constant, but were technical efficiency improvements or the recession the principal cause?

Energy Consumption in Homes by End Users (quadrillion Btu and percent)
Figure 1. The residential sector consumed essentially the same amount of energy in 2009 as it did in 1993, and heating and cooling dropped to less than half of home energy use in 2009.

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See EIA statistics on U.S. home energy use.

Still, if we don’t start saving electricity, we’re missing the boat. Saving electricity should be the growth sector of the home energy industry. Over time, the skill set of the home energy industry (from weatherization to net zero energy homes) has evolved. Now we need to bring on new expertise—in electronics and controls—to keep that electricity use in check.

Where to start? We need demonstration homes to show what savings can be achieved. Retrofitting existing homes seems like a special challenge. We also need a completely new set of partner industries—ones that never participated in low-energy homes before but that design, manufacture, and sell the thousands of electronics and small devices. Finally, we need new equipment, equipment components, and metering technology to make it easier and cheaper to save electricity. This won’t happen overnight but the trends say that it needs to happen soon.

Alan Meier is senior executive editor of Home Energy.

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