It is no secret that the green revolution has spread into the American household. If you live in California, chances are the last house you walked into had flourescent bulbs screwed in an outlet somewhere, Government-approved Energy Star appliances chugging away benevolently, maybe even state-sponsored TV advertisements blaring on the TV urging you to 'give the gift of green,' and become more energy-conscious. It's worth wondering whether the constant talk and emphasis is getting us anywhere: new figures released by the Energy Information Agency show that while US households have increased their energy efficiency, total household energy consumption in the United States remains almost equal to 1978 levels.
It's certainly a positive sign that energy use remains at roughly the same despite a large growth in the number of households: since 1978 the United States added millions of homes, up to 111.1 in 2005 from 76.6 million occupied housing units in 1978, while the EIA reports that improvements in efficiency have led to a 31 percent reduction in energy use per household. Even with 45 percent more homes in 2005, Americans reduced the total amount of energy used on heating--down to 4.30 quads from 1978's 6.96--due to improvements in home design and as well as the increased efficiency of heating devices.
But even as the energy consumed by heating has dropped, Americans have stepped up their use of other energy-draining sources, notably plugged-in electronic devices and appliances as well as air-conditioning. According to the EIA, electricity used by appliances and electronics has nearly doubled in the last three decades, and while most households only had one television in 1978, the average household had 2.5 televisions in 2009. The number of houses that use central air-conditioning has nearly tripled in the same time frame, up to 61 percent in 2009.
Michael Mechanic interprets the numbers at Mother Jones: "When it comes to household energy use, we're saving more and then using our savings to buy more stuff." Robyn Griggs Lawrence at the Huffington Post draws a similar conclusion from the report: "Our 'needs' for the latest gadgets elevate our energy consumption, even with the onslaught of energy-efficient appliances in recent years."
It's an important reminder that efficiency certainly isn't the same thing as reduction--a dirty word in the American mind.