American homes are bigger again but now more energy efficient

A new government report shows American homes are more energy efficient than in the past:

Efficiency gains are offsetting more than 70 percent of the growth in energy use that would result from the increasing size and number of U.S. households, reports the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In fact, energy intensity—energy used per square foot—was 37 percent lower (or better) in 2009 than in 1980. It meant a reduced use of coal, natural gas and nuclear fuel.

Why this progress? The EIA cites factors that include energy prices, shifts in fuel sources and stricter building codes. It also notes the broader use of more efficient technologies—from appliances and lighting to heating/cooling units, some of which were promoted via energy labeling programs such as the voluntary Energy Star.

That’s the good news. The EIA also gives the bad: “The gains from energy intensity improvements would have been even larger if it were not for consumer preferences for larger homes and increased adoption of home appliances and electronics.”

Two competing interests: trying to reduce energy usage but Americans, when they have the money, tending to purchase larger homes. Progress is being made on the efficiency front but the real gains would come if Americans had smaller and more energy-efficient homes. There are two possible courses of action:

1. Continue to try to convince Americans they don’t need such big homes. This might be done with psychological arguments (smaller homes will fit you better, feel more cozy), shame arguments (that size of space is unnecessary), environmental arguments (you are wasting energy), cost arguments (smaller homes could be cheaper both in purchase price and upkeep), or peer pressure (a smaller home may grant higher status or you don’t want to be the one who sticks out with your extra-large home).

2. Continue to keep improving energy efficiency so that the bigger homes aren’t as problematic. More passive houses? More net zero energy homes? Offer tax credits to improve energy efficiency?

In the short term, I imagine #2 is the most likely path with a small group continuing to work on the arguments of#1.


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