figure 1. The red arrows show the two times the annual per-person energy use decreased.


Well, a whole lot of the time, according to the author. Consider his interesting perspective on the effort we pour into increasing efficiency in buildings and what it gets us in the end with regard to consumption. Also, can you guess the one sector that has actually managed to reduce usage? Find out and read some theories why.

figure 2. Since at least 1928, annual electric use per residential customer never decreased.

In the 1980s, I predicted that improving energy efficiency would not reduce energy use. I was a building contractor then and witnessed the price shocks in the 1970s - the days of lines and hoses. Price shocks in 1973-74 and again in 1978-79 caught everyone off guard. There were no energy-efficient technologies at that time, yet we had significant reductions in energy use per capita. The red arrows in Figure 1 show those reductions.

Since then, we have relied mostly on improved efficiency to reduce our energy consumption. In two previous articles for Engineered Systems in 1992 and 2002, I concentrated on electric use because that has been the focus of many efforts to improve efficiency. This article has the same focus.

I have charted in Figures 2, 3, and 4 the per-customer annual kWh for residential, commercial, and industrial customers since 1928. These data come from the Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) yearbooks, which also contain much additional information about the electric utility industry. EEI says they get the information about consumption from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The recent dip in per capita energy use is probably due to off-shoring energy-intensive industries and the recession that started around 1998, as we will see below with data from industrial customers.

figure 3. Annual electric use per commercial customer also never decreased.

According to data from the EEI and EIA, there has never been a reduction in residential or commercial electric use per customer. When we consider all the inventions of more efficient end uses, plus improvements to technological efficiency over time, this is a systemic failure to reduce electric use.

The period of time in these charts involved the introduction of fluorescent light, more efficient motors and heating systems, direct and indirect domestic water heaters, VSDs, variable volume HVAC, microwave, laser and fiber optic technologies, computers, digital communication, DDC, EMS, light emitting diodes, reflective internal fixture surfaces, better light diffusers, daylight and vacancy sensors, higher SEER A/C with economizers, double-bundle condensers on chilled water systems, air-to-air (and now ground source heat pumps), photovoltaics, and on-site cogeneration, encouraged with tax credits and accelerated depreciation. Customers have also been motivated by utility rebates and extensive publicity on energy efficiency. Yet, per customer residential and commercial electric use did not decrease.

During this period of time, we have also had many government programs - the Department of Energy, state energy offices, the Environmental Protection Agency, Commercial and Apartment Conservation Service, Residential Conservation Service, energy efficiency tax credits, the Model Energy Code, the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), ASHRAE Standard 90, the shared savings industry, EnergyStar, LEED®, national energy acts, and building energy rating systems. None lowered average electric use per customer in the residential and commercial sectors.

On the other hand, there has been a recent, massive, 37% decrease in electricity use per industrial customer. Peak per customer use was in 2000. Table 1 shows a more detailed analysis of 2000 to 2008.

Why? One reason is that, as the recession became obvious, industry became more competitive. John Hughes of the Electricity Consumers Resource Council (ELCON) e-mailed, “Competitive pressure forces productivity improvements. The chemical, auto, cement, and steel manufacturers have done remarkable things to reduce electric consumption per unit production.” Hughes also suggested four additional reasons:
  • “U.S. policies encourage the shift of basic industry (especially energy-intensive) production to overseas markets (notably the so-called BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India, and China). There seems to be a complacency among U.S. policy makers about the offshore migration of manufacturing jobs in favor of service sector or “high tech” jobs. But as the recent Great Recession demonstrated, many of the gains in service sector jobs were the result of economic “bubbles” in the financial and retail sectors that are not sustainable. The U.S. has totally lost its ability to manufacture competitive high-tech consumer products, and even chip manufacturing is on the decline relative to past trends. I’ve attached a very good article written by Intel’s founder, Andy Grove, that is also very sad.” [see www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_28/b4186048358596.htm]

  • “The behavior of politicians is also contributing to the demise of U.S. manufacturing capabilities. Both the political parties attack the other for not doing enough to create jobs, and any policies that succeed in getting enacted in legislation are wasted on advancing partisan myths (e.g., “green” jobs or “small businesses”).

  • Somewhat related to #2 above is globalization. In 1990, almost all ELCON members were U.S. corporations with headquarters in major U.S. cities. Now, after a couple of decades of mergers and acquisitions, the typical ELCON member is as likely to have its headquarters in London, Tokyo, Amsterdam, or Paris as in Detroit, Chicago, or San Jose. Manufacturing capacity tends naturally to have boom-bust cycles, and when a global industrial corporation finds it necessary to reduce capacity, the older, high-cost facilities in the U.S. are dead meat. For example, since 1980, the amount of refined petroleum products that are imported instead of produced domestically has increased substantially. The U.S. imports an enormous amount of steel from the BRIC countries. In 2007, we exported ferrous metals worth $13.8 billion while our iron and steel imports were worth $25.5 billion.

  • Finally, young Americans no longer aspire to work in industry. I see this trend in declining enrollments in engineering programs at colleges and university, and the interests of people coming out of MBA programs. There is strong interest in secondary education programs related to the environment - a fact that only contributes to a culture that says, ‘You’re not welcome here anymore.’”


figure 4. From 1998 to 2008, electric use per industrial customer decreased 37%.

Annual net electric power generation decreased for the first time since 2001, according to the Energy Information Administration’s Electric Power Industry 2008: Year in Review, which reads. “In 2008, electricity generation and sales were adversely affected by the weakening economy.” An EIA official e-mailed to me, “Decreased industrial energy is caused by the recession in the recent term.”

I think it is likely that the recession and the loss of our industry overseas are the major causes of the average reduction for industrial customers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, about 2.4 million jobs in the U.S. have gone to China since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.

It seems that electric loads are being added to residential and commercial buildings faster than efficiency improvements can reduce overall use. If the added loads are computers, cell phones, routers, and other electronics, then the additional electric end uses are themselves already efficient. Any new appliances are likely to be more efficient than the older ones.

table 1. The decreases per industrial customer were greatest in 2001 and 2003.

Consider Stan Cox, in his book, Losing our Cool, who writes, “But the question of whether or not efficiency ‘causes’ the increased consumption is best set aside as a subject of debate for university seminars. Resource efficiency on the scale of a household or company almost always benefits those who put it into practice, but that does not automatically conserve resources or protect ecosystems across the city, state, nation, or planet. Leonard Brookes, a British economist who shares credit for the modern incarnation of Jevons’s paradox - known as the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate - views energy efficiency as a distraction: ‘Maximizing energy efficiency has no particular merit as a national or international target. It is not a proxy for maximizing economic efficiency or social benefit or minimizing environmental damage. Pursuing it as a target entails bias that in turn leads to misallocation of available economic resources; claims made for progress in pursuing it are often faulty.’”

Given no politically palatable alternative to growth, elected officials tend to gravitate toward energy-saving measures that require little or no sacrifice. That, of course, is also the kind of legislation that is least likely to save energy.”

Efficiency can decrease the cost of an end use, like lighting or A/C, in buildings of separately metered customers only. Energy conservation (turning things off) is usually far more effective. Efficiency, conservation, and renewable electricity will not, however, lower overall electric use. Since we treat energy as a commodity, efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy free up some of the commodity to be bought and used by others, often at a lower price.

Energy efficiency has not lowered electric use in this country. And it will not lower use in the rest of the world because they want to be just like us.

Efficiency reduces the cost of energy end uses - almost all of them - putting those uses on sale. And who doesn’t like a sale? The more we use an efficient end use, the more energy we save. So, we waste a whole lot of energy efficiently.

The bottom line for Engineered Systems readers is, although we design and specify electric end uses that are much more efficient than those in the past, the residential and commercial sectors are adding electric loads (often very efficient loads) faster than our designs can reduce national average electric consumption. If we truly want to reduce our energy use, we need to change the paradigm, and the 1970s and 1980s provide some guidance. ES