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From Big Energy Consumption (E) to Lower Energy Consumption (e)

Very little shocks me anymore. But I was shocked – SHOCKED! – to discover that one space in our house which takes up only about 5% of the floor space draws more than 20% of the KWH our house consumes in a day.

Can you guess which room this is? It is the space my family calls the “home office.”

Misery loves company and, it turns out, I am in good company. According to a 2009 Energy Information Administration survey, 30% of the energy an average U.S. home consumes goes to powering electronic gadgets, small appliances, and lighting.  That figure is up nearly 10 percentage points from 1993, when it was roughly 20%. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, much of this trend is attributable to the increase in energy-consuming gadgets in the home.

In our home office, I knew something was powering the blue, green, and red glowing lights when the house is dark, but I was once again shocked to discover that a large chunk of the KWH these electronic gadgets use are consumed when we’re not there.

When I shared my misery with friends and colleagues, several gloated that their entire home consumed just slightly more KWH a day than my home office. I was shocked again!

How do they do it? In addition to replacing dated refrigerators with brand-new Energy Star refrigerators and making capital investments in whole house weatherization strategies like window replacement, insulation, and caulking, their advice echoed the advice of other experts: unplug electronic gadgets such as televisions, cable boxes, computer monitors, printers, and chargers when not in use.

Crawling behind sofas and under tables to plug and unplug the television and various other gadgets reeks of serious inconvenience to me, but attaching gadgets to an easy-to-reach power strip with an on-off switch serves the same purpose with much less hassle (though still not hassle-free).

A colleague of mine, David Levine, recently wrote in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about phantom power, the power that appliances continue to draw even when they are not in use. In his op-ed, he proposes manufacturers be required to list how much phantom power a device consumes in order to provide consumers more information about energy use. He also points out that European regulations require new appliances to draw no more than 1 watt of power in standby mode.

Despite decades of efforts and billions of dollars directed at energy efficiency, we know (shockingly) little about which investments and/or behavioral nudges will give us the biggest bang for the energy efficiency buck. We also know (shockingly) little about how well current energy efficiency regulations and programs work.

To answer those questions, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation recently funded The E2e Project, which I and my colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley – Catherine Wolfram – and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Michael Greenstone and Chris Knittel – founded, to bring rigorous, state-of-the-art evaluation techniques to energy efficiency programs.

The mission of E2e is to unite top researchers in order to create a cheaper and greener future.

And at the same time, the mission is a personal one as I continue to learn how to get the biggest bang for my energy efficient buck at home.




8 thoughts on “From Big Energy Consumption (E) to Lower Energy Consumption (e) Leave a comment

  1. One other by-product of the home electronics and home appliances running continuously, is that they produce heat persistently. This is fantastic, if you live in Minnesota, in the winter; but lousy, if you live in Houston, like I do. I installed new windows; caulked, sealed and painted the whole house; re-roofed; and then insulated top to bottom. This really traps the heat and I now run the AC more as a consequence of sealing the house up.

  2. A few random comments:

    – TVs are getting more efficient, but these gains are more than offset by people getting larger and more TVs.

    – cable company set-top-boxes are also huge consumers. Some use more power than modern fridges. In addition to being a fantastic example of a principal / agent problem, STBs are mostly awful to use, too. 😦

    – set your computer to sleep (not just the monitor) when idle for a certain period of your chjoosing. It’s not that hard to do, but most PCs do not come with this setting as default as waiting <30 seconds for the machine to wake up is considered too inconvenient for most folks.

  3. While you are at it, maybe you should be clear that, while YOU “know (shockingly) little about which investments and/or behavioral nudges will give us the biggest bang for the energy efficiency buck. And YOU also know (shockingly) little about how well current energy efficiency regulations and programs work.” There are many many evaluations that have been done that answer many of the above questions. Science is a process driven by a lack of knowledge — so your research might be quite useful. However you need to delve into the thousands of evaluations and studies that have already been done without prejudice. Can you do that? There are many unanswered questions, but there are also many known answers.

  4. I’d second Dave Rinebolt’s comment on window replacement, btw. LBL has done some recent work on the effectiveness of window attachments, and has published studies on air sealing windows.

  5. Elizabeth, thanks for your post. It echoes finding from our authors at Home Energy magazine. Please keep us posted on your work on E2e, especially the residential sector. Our readers are especially interested in EE opportunities! Thanks, Tom White, Publisher.

  6. Please stop saying that new windows save energy; it takes about 30 years to payoff the investment in energy savings. By comparison a CFL or blower-door guided air sealing pay off in less than a year. Windows are expensive. A power strip or a door sweep is not. The only time a window replacement is a good, cost-effective option for saving energy is when the old one lacks glass.

    • Agree. The pay off time of replacing an old window that does not need replacing indeed is too much. But for new construction, or when installing a replacement anyway for aesthetic or remodeling considering a ‘better’ window might almost certainly sense.

      Crawling behind sofas and tables to plug or unplug is not very convenient; and sometimes neither is a powerstrip. For example if I turn off the power strip to my TV, it also turns off the Roku; so when I turn on the Roku takes about 90 sec to ‘reboot’. Not good for most impatient people.

      And I dont get “… 30% of the energy an average U.S. home consumes goes to powering electronic gadgets, small appliances, and lighting.” So all that is left is HVAC. Right? (is a refrigerator and oven a small appliance? I didnt think so.) This whole focus on gadget power consumption is nitpicking; dont stand in front of an open refrigerator, or make better use of the oven (open-shut, use pre-heat heat, etc) and the savings will more than make up for the gadgets.

      • There are power strips were one outlet is always available and the other outlets are switch depending on whether the load in the first outlet is drawing power. So, for example, you could plug your TV into the unswitched/monitored outlet and STB, game console, Roku, etc, into the others. Now, when the TV is on, the others are on, too, and when it’s off, they’re off. This reduces the inconvenience of having to do it yourself.

        You are still left with the inconvenience of waiting for those other devices to boot and/or gather their wits before being useful to you. It can often be as much as a minute, which seems like not much but is actually pretty annoying.

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