iPhones and refrigerators — The evolution of American energy use

August 20th, 2013 | by K Kaufmann | Comments

I am not looking forward to my August electric bill, mostly because I spent the better part of the last two weeks at home with pneumonia and the air conditioning on almost 24-7, rather than just early mornings and evenings.

But as I returned to work on Monday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration – an absolutely indispensible source of facts and figures on all aspects of American power markets, generation and use — had heartening news on California’s below-average electricity use.

Based on figures from EIA’s 2009 Residential Energy Consumption Survey,  California households use 31 percent less energy than the national average and spend 30 percent less.  In Btus — British thermal units – California homes use 62 million Btus per year versus the 89.6 million Btu national average.

But, while we’re spending 30 percent less on energy overall, when it comes to electricity, California residents pay close to the national average because of our high utility rates. Remembering that the Coachella Valley routinely blows all average electric bills out of the water, the EIA has the average California electric bill at a little over $1,000 per year, while the national average is around $1,300 per year.

Other significant facts and figures from the EIA’s breakdown of California’s energy use –

Air conditioning accounts for the smallest slice of our home energy use, 4 percent statewide versus 6 percent nationally, while appliances, electronics and lights are our primary kilowatt-guzzlers, accounting for 44 percent versus 35 percent nationwide.

Another unexpected figure, our average house size is 1,583 square feet, 20 percent less than the national average of 1,971 square feet.

For such small houses, we’ve got way too many television sets. While 20 percent of American homes have only one set, in California,  only 2-3 percent are single-TV households and more than 75 percent have 3-5 sets.

The rising American dependence on electronics of all shapes and sizes could be our undoing power-wise according to a new report on how much electricity it takes to keep our digital world running.  Funded by the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the report is aimed at showing how critical coal is to keeping our information and communication technologies (ICT) running, but as writer Claire Thompson notes in an article on the Grist website:

“. . . instead of inspiring gratitude for coal and all the blessings it
bestows on us, knowing the source of all that juice just makes the
digital economy’s ginormous energy footprint of even greater concern.”

The world’s ICT systems now use 1,500 terawatt hours of power per year, as much power as was used for lighting worldwide in 1985, the report says. One terawatt equals 1 billion kilowatt hours.

Streaming one hour per week of video on a smartphone or tablet uses as much power per year as two new refrigerators, the report says.

“And as the world continues to electrify, migrating toward one refrigerator per household, it also evolves toward several smartphones and equivalent per person.”

Ongoing dependence on fossil fuels need not be a foregone conclusion, as the rooftop solar market continues to gain momentum.

Solar installers across the U.S. are putting panels on roofs once every four minutes, according to a new market analysis from Greentech Media. That’s down from one installation every 80 minutes in 2006, and if current growth rates continue, by 2016, the country will see a new solar installation once every minute and 20 seconds (chart below from Greentech Media).

About two-thirds of all panels on U.S. roofs have been installed in the past two and half years. By 2016 the total number of rooftop installations will double, GTM predicts.

Such numbers indicate that solar, while still a very small slice of U.S. power production, is gaining acceptance among ordinary people looking for a way to cut their power costs and their carbon emissions.

This growth is fast reshaping the economic landscape for American utilities, and many are pushing back trying to compensate for the loss of business. I will be writing about this transformation in an upcoming blog post.



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