American Homes and 40 Years of Breaking Even

US Suburban HouseIn 1973 the initiation of the Arab Oil Embargo had rippling affects on energy use in the United States. As oil prices climbed while supply fell, in months America became suddenly conscious about their energy use and how much their dependence on inexpensive energy could cost its economy. The government action in response came at impressive speed by today’s standards, initiating a series of efforts to encourage people to save both oil and money spent on energy. The 55mph speed limit was born. Daylight savings was extended (temporarily) to the entirety of the year in an effort to conserve electricity. New subsidies were given to the spur the development of renewable energy sources. Oil consumption dropped 20% in the U.S., yet the country survived.

Though the embargo was lifted in 1974, it would mark the first time when the steady increase in residential energy use across the country ceased its upward movement. While energy would be an issue viewed with greater scrutiny from this point forward, the Energy Information Administration revealed that the per capita residential energy consumption has remained nominally flat over the past 40 years, lingering at the 1973 levels of around 70 million Btu’s per person.

The U.S. population was roughly 214 million in 1973 and has since increased 46% to 313 million according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The analysis of the EIA points to several factors that have balanced an increasing population with the stabilization of energy usage per person. Part of the explanation revolves around the migration of the mean center of the population. Since the country’s inception Americans have expanded their habitation away from the Northeast, moving westward and southward to warmer and drier climates requiring less energy to heat and cool homes. This trend continued over the past four decades.

Energy Use In AmericaThough the size of the average home increased in the latter part of the 20th century, the study notes that the creation of federal or state requirements for energy usage on numerous household appliances such as furnaces, air conditioners, heat pumps, water heaters, refrigerators, and freezers played a significant role in tempering our tendency for increased consumption. Though a national building code does not exist, energy standards have been written into numerous state building codes that prescribe stricter levels of efficiency in anything from the building envelope to lighting fixtures.

Personally, I find it disheartening that despite all of our innovation in one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, the average American consumes the same amount of energy at home today that he did 40 years ago.

Don’t be Wooed by the Free Market

Aversions to government implement of energy mandates or technology efficiency standards are often met with the justification that the free market will cause an evolution of efficiency over time, negating the need to circumvent it with regulation. This data set seems to disprove such a theory. Over the past forty years our net progress in efficiency has been more or less zero and that is with a significant amount of direction from both state and federal governments in setting new requirements for different components of the American home. The likelihood that we would have matched these results with only free market innovation to guide us seems slim.

Another effect of the oil embargo was the ultimate creation of the U.S. Department of Energy in 1977 along with the creation of a cabinet level position on the President’s staff. Today the DOE manages the EnergyStar program that sets milestones for a full spectrum of household electronics from appliances to televisions. The EnergyStar home rating system is also now a component of the LEED for Homes, setting an efficiency standard above that of most, if not all, state governments. We have no reason to be pointing fingers at agencies like the DOE or the EPA. Thanks to them, 40 years later we still have a fighting chance.

The Silver Lining

US Home Energy

Source: U.S. Department of Energy

One redeeming side of all of this is that we have managed to stay flat without really trying. It is unsurprising that sustainability advocates like Amory Lovins claim that we could accomplish a 20-30% reduction in national energy use through conservation or improved efficiency. He’s right. Rising government standards has kept us at a baseline for 40 years, but a greater commitment from building owners could break our plateau to the downside and we have a plethora of tools at our disposal.

According to the Department of Energy, the three largest sources of energy use in the home are for heating, air conditioning and heating water. Together these components total 72% of our consumption. These numbers immediately point to geothermal heating and cooling which not only cuts the amount of energy we use to temper our homes, but the sources cut are usually fossil fuels like heating oil or natural gas. Evacuated solar thermal tubes, used in the 2011 Solar Decathlon winning house, lower the energy needed for heating water to nearly zero. These two measures alone could slash residential energy consumption and are options that are open to buildings of any scale.

The size of the homes we build is another easy target for lowering energy consumption. Though American living has changed, the basic model of our homes has remained the same for decades including outmoded rooms like a formal living and dining room–components of an antiquated lifestyle. These two spaces could easily account for 12-15% of an average 2,500 square foot home which means less to build, maintain and temper throughout the year.

The next advance in home efficiency is in the hands of the American people. Builders and architects need to make the options better known to their prospective clients and clients need to know enough about the options to ask for them. With a little bit of effort a 40 year stalemate could be a thing of the past.

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