Untangling the Energy Web

Energy Mix Pie Graph
Average Household Energy Mix
Electricity Mix Pie Graph
Average Household Electricity Mix
Energy Mix Pie Graph
Electricity Mix Pie Graph

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s  Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS), the average household consumed 90 million Btu in 2009. This continues the downward trend in average residential energy consumption of the last 30 years. More than 30 years ago (in 1978), energy use per household was about 1.5 times this amount—138 million Btu.

That’s the good news. Even though there are now more homes (and they’re bigger, and use more electronics), efficiency improvements for space heating, air conditioning, and major appliances have all led to decreased consumption per household. More insulation and better building materials, such as double-pane windows, have also improved home performance.

Notably, the RECS data also showed that homeowners were actively involved in making energy-efficiency improvements, such as using caulk or weather-stripping to deal with air leaks (35% of those surveyed); adding insulation (23%); and using compact fluorescent or LED lighting (60%).

While efficiency gains are good news, looking at what is still fueling our energy use is more sobering. Electricity serves the majority (44%) of a household’s needs, then natural gas (27%), propane (19%), and wood (5%). Fuel oil (3%) and kerosene (<1%) aren’t fueling many homes these days. But neither is solar—a miniscule 0.4%.

We’ve still got a lot of work to do to supply ourselves with renewable energy. That’s why we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves too heartily for annually zeroing out our energy bills in our grid-tied homes. During nighttime hours or periods of heavy load use that exceed our renewable energy systems’ capacity, we’re drawing from the grid—and it’s largely fossil-fueled.

In the United States, the majority of our electricity is generated by coal (39%, as of 2013); then by natural gas (27%). Nuclear power provides 19%, while petroleum only provides a tiny amount—less than 1%. Renewably generated electricity (non-hydro) is 6%—conventional hydro is also 6%.

We also shouldn’t fool ourselves that going off-grid is a better choice for lightening our energy footprint. While you may be able to live within the electricity limits of your PV, wind, or microhydro system, most off-grid homes still rely on fossil-fuel sources of energy (usually propane) for space heating, water heating, cooking, and foul-weather backup. (If you’re meeting these needs exclusively with renewable energy, our hats are off to you—and we want to share your story with other Home Power readers!)

Obviously, there’s lots of room for improvement. Start with negawatts first—that’s pretty easy to do during the long days of summer, since you can shift your fossil-fuel loads to solar. Cook in a solar oven; hang your clothes out to dry. Next, attack the energy wasters in your home. Maybe it’s a 20-year-old refrigerator that’s eating too many electrons or antiquated lighting that’s consuming too much electricity. Add insulation to your home; caulk those cracks. Then, check out the no-down-payment financing or interest-free short loans many solar installation companies now offer, since these options can make going solar much easier on the wallet. And finally, don’t forget about your local utility—put pressure on them to invest in large-scale renewable energy systems.

Start local, but think global—so you can affect change, one electron at a time. And you can  help the world go solar, one rooftop at a time.

—Claire Anderson, for the Home Power crew

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