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Energy conservation is the practice of decreasing the quantity of energy used while achieving a similar outcome of end use. This practice may result in increase of national security, personal security, financial capital, human comfort and environmental value. Individuals and organizations that are direct consumers of energy may want to conserve energy in order to reduce energy costs and promote environmental values. Industrial and commercial users may want to increase efficiency and maximize profit.

On a larger scale, energy conservation is an element of energy policy. The need to increase the available supply of energy (for example, through the creation of new power plants, or by the importation of more energy) is lessened if societal demand for energy can be reduced, or if growth in demand can be slowed. This makes energy conservation an important part of the debate over climate change and the replacement of non-renewable resources with renewable energy. Encouraging energy conservation among consumers is often advocated as a cheaper or more environmentally sensitive alternative to increased energy production.

Energy Efficiency trends in the United States

The U.S. is by far the biggest consumer of energy in the world. The U.S. Department of Energy categorizes national energy use in four broad sectors: transportation, residential, commercial, and industrial.

Energy usage in the transportation and residential sectors (about half of U.S. energy consumption) is largely controlled by individual consumers. Commercial and industrial energy expenditures are determined by businesses, government entities and other facility managers. National energy policy has a significant effect on energy usage across all four sectors.

US Energy Stats for 2004

Transportation Sector

The transportation sector includes all vehicles used for personal or freight transportation. Of the energy used in this sector, approximately 65% is consumed by gasoline-powered vehicles, primarily personally owned. Diesel-powered transport (trains, merchant ships, heavy trucks, etc.) consumes about 20%, and air traffic consumes most of the remaining 15%.

The oil supply crises of the 1970s spurred the creation, in 1975, of the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program, which required auto manufacturers to meet progressively higher fleet fuel economy targets. The next decade saw dramatic improvements in fuel economy, mostly the result of reductions in vehicle size and weight. These gains eroded somewhat after 1990 due to the growing popularity of sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and minivans, which fall under the more lenient "light truck" CAFE standard.

In addition to the CAFE program, the U.S. government has tried to encourage better vehicle efficiency through tax policy. Since 2002, taxpayers have been eligible for income tax credits for gas/electric hybrid vehicles. A "gas-guzzler" tax has been assessed on manufacturers since 1978 for cars with exceptionally poor fuel economy. While this tax remains in effect, it currently generates very little revenue as overall fuel economy has improved.

Another focus in gasoline conservation is reducing the number of miles driven. An estimated 40% of American automobile use is associated with daily Commuting. Many urban areas offer subsidized public transportation to reduce commuting traffic, and encourage carpooling by providing designated high-occupancy vehicle lanes and lower tolls for cars with multiple riders.

In recent years telecommuting has also become a viable alternative to commuting for some jobs, but as of 2003 only 3.5% of workers were telecommuters. Ironically, hundreds of thousands of U.S. and European workers have been replaced by workers in India who telecommute from thousands of miles away.

A vehicle's gas mileage normally decreases rapidly at speeds above 55 miles per hour. A car or truck moving at 55 miles an hour can get about 15 percent better fuel economy than the same car going 65 mph. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), as a rule of thumb, each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph is similar to paying an additional $0.21 per gallon for gas (at $3.00 per gallon).

Residential Sector

The residential sector refers to all private residences, including single-family homes, apartments, manufactured homes and dormitories. Energy use in this sector varies significantly across the country, due to regional climate differences and different regulation. On average, about half of the energy used in the U.S. homes is expended on space conditioning (i.e. heating and cooling).

The efficiency of furnaces and air conditioners has increased steadily since the energy crises of the 1970s. The 1987 National Appliance Energy Conservation Act authorized the Department of Energy to set minimum efficiency standards for space conditioning equipment and other appliances each year, based on what is "technologically feasible and economically justified". Beyond these minimum standards, the Environmental Protection Agency awards the Energy Star designation to appliances that exceed industry efficiency averages by an EPA-specified percentage.

Despite technological improvements, many American lifestyle changes have put higher demands on heating and cooling resources. The average size of homes built in the United States has increased significantly, from 1500 ft in 1970 to 2300 ft in 2005. The single-person household has become more common, as has central air conditioning: 23% of households had central air conditioning in 1978, that figure rose to 55% by 2001.

As a cheaper alternative to the purchase of a new furnace or air conditioner, most public utilities encourage smaller changes the consumer can make to lessen space conditioning usage. Weatherization is frequently subsidized by utilities or state/federal tax credits, as are programmable thermostats. Consumers have also been urged to adopt a wider indoor temperature range (e.g. 65F in winter, 80F in summer).

Home energy consumption averages:

  • space conditioning, 44%
  • water heating, 13%
  • lighting, 12%
  • refrigeration, 8%
  • home electronics, 6%
  • laundry appliances, 5%
  • kitchen appliances, 4%
  • other uses, 8%

Energy usage in some homes may vary widely from these averages. For example, milder regions such as the southern U.S. and Pacific coast of the USA need far less energy for space conditioning than New York City or London. In milder climates, lighting energy may easily consume up to 40% of total energy. Certain appliances such as a waterbed, hot tub, or pre-1990 refrigerator use significant amounts of electricity. In most residences no single appliance dominates, and any conservation efforts must be directed to numerous areas in order to achieve substantial energy savings. However, Ground Source Heat Pump systems are the more energy efficient, environmentally clean, and cost-effective space conditioning systems available (Environmental Protection Agency), and can achieve reductions in energy consumptions of up to 70%.

Best Building Practices

Current best practices in building design and construction result in homes that are profoundly more energy conserving than average new homes.

Issues with energy conservation

Critics of some forms of energy conservation make the following arguments:

  • Confusion of financial payback versus energy savings. For example, a consumer purchasing a new hybrid vehicle may focus on the improvement in the miles per gallon rating of the hybrid over a current vehicle, without taking into account the money put into manufacturing the vehicle. The hybrid car may give 45 mpg, saving the average driver 278 gallons per year. The hybrid engine cost $3000 extra, so with gasoline at $2.50 per gallon, it pays for itself in 4.3 years. This is a payback argument and neglects the important information that over 1000 gallons of gasoline have been saved in the payback period, regardless of costs. It also neglects the fact that resale value of a fuel efficient vehicle will be higher than a conventional gas powered vehicle. On the other hand, it also neglects the relative energy costs of the vehicles.
  • Relative to more suitable design of building lighting. Some critics suggest that it is inefficient to reduce lighting intensity levels in the workplace. The facts are that health studies have demonstrated that headache, stress (medicine), blood pressure, fatigue and worker error all generally increase with the common over-illumination present in many workplace and retail settings (Davis, 2001), (Bain, 1997). However, it has been shown that natural daylighting increases productivity levels of workers, while reducing energy consumption.
  • Retailers argue they need bright lighting to stimulate purchasing. This is, in fact, often true. The real issue here is a moral one. Does a given society value increased sales or decreased use of natural resources?

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The Registry of Nature Habitats
PO Box 321
Meridale, NY 13806
Copyright 1999 - All Rights Reserved

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