Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

From big energy consumption (E) to lower energy consumption (e)

By Elizabeth Bailey

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).

power strip/surge protector

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.

Cross-posted from Energy Economics Exchange (tag line: Research that Informs Business and Social Policy), a blog of the Energy Institute at Haas.