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Why The U. S. Uses So Much Energy

By Bruce of Stone Marmot

Aug. 11, 2008

The United States is often criticized for using a vastly disproportionate amount of the world's available energy relative to its population. With less than 5 % of the world's total population, the U. S. consumes about 25 % of the world's total energy output. Part of the reason for this is because the U. S. also produces a disproportionate amount of the world's goods. Many of these goods are exported to the rest of the world and many of these exports, such as food and medicines, are necessary for the survival of a good portion of the world's population. But this only accounts for a small portion of this disproportionate energy consumption.

Many would blame the businesses in the U. S. for this disproportionate energy consumption. But businesses have a very strong incentive to conserve energy. That incentive in the bottom line: How profitable the business is or even if it can stay in business. With a booming economy, vast profits may overwhelm the costs associated with energy so that these costs may not be noticed by all but the most profit conscious firms. But in lean times, such as we have been going through, and companies trying to cut costs any way that they can, the hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of dollars spent by a company each year on energy can't be ignored.

People will be quick to point out many examples of U. S. businesses that don't seem to be too concerned about their energy consumption. One or more of the following four reasons will account for most of these examples:

1) The business in question is an old, established, capital intensive industrial firm. Changing to more efficient processes would be very expensive and these costs would make the business temporarily noncompetitive with its peers. Often, many of its competitive peers are foreign firms that built their facilities more recently, either due to being new in the market or having their old facilities destroyed by war or some other social upheaval. Since these foreign facilities are newer, they will usually be more efficient than their U. S. counterparts, which accounts for another part of the disparity in energy consumption by the U. S. and the rest of the world. But as energy costs increase and these facilities reach the end of their useful lives, the upgrading to more efficient processes will be forced upon these companies.

2) These are smaller or newer businesses that don't have the knowledge to realize how they can improve their profitability by reducing their energy costs. Unless these businesses have a large market with little or no competition, they will have to learn to control these costs or they may not be in business much longer.

3) Customers demand these inefficient practices. For example: How often do you walk into a business in the summertime and find the place too cold for your comfort? The temperature comfort range of an individual differs greatly within a given population. Many customers will complain if the business is colder than average, but the cold temperature will cause few to avoid the business, whereas many will be discouraged from patronizing a business if its facility is too warm for their comfort in the summertime. This situation is further aggravated in tourist areas, where many of the tourists have just come from and are more used to a colder climate than the resident population. This is less of a problem in other countries, since most are psychologically tuned to expect less than perfect conditions in these countries. But in the U. S., with its vast technology and wealth, most people expect either perfection or excess and are less tolerant of a more natural discomfort.

4) Company employees unwittingly (or even intentionally) sabotage the business' conservation efforts. Since these employees aren't paying the electric bill, they simply don't care that they are wasting energy. Examples from where I worked: Many leave their computers on all the time (24 hours a day) and many brought in their own incandescent lamps for their work areas, which use more energy than the company provided fluorescent lights and which they leave on 24 hours a day (most of the company lights automatically turn off after regular business hours).

Another reason the U. S. consumes a disproportionate amount of the world's energy is that it is physically a much larger country than most of the other industrialized nations. Note that Canada and Australia, two other industrialized countries with large land masses, have per capita energy consumption that is more comparable with the U. S. But since these two countries have vastly smaller populations than the U. S., their percentages of the world's total energy consumption is barely noticeable. If the U. S. were to depopulate most of its land and confine its population to an area with a population density comparable to that in Japan or central Europe, its per capita energy consumption would drop significantly.

But the main reason that the U. S. uses much more energy per capita than the rest of the world is simply because the people living here honestly don't care about their energy consumption. Sure, if you ask them, almost any American will reply that he is very concerned about energy consumption. And most Americans do complain about gas prices and their electric bills. But few will even consider doing anything about it.

Very few Americans choose a product based on its energy consumption. Most of those who do are ridiculed as being cheapskates or treehugging extremists. Waste is glorified in this country; it is a sign that you have "made it." Most of those who do claim to be concerned about energy consumption usually claim that it is somebody else's fault, like the government's or the manufacturers'. They refuse to see how they are contributing to the problem.

These manufacturers are simply giving consumers what they are asking for. And for most consumers, low cost or fancy features are far more important than energy efficiency, if energy use is even considered at all.

An obvious example is the number of big pickup trucks and vans and SUVs on the American highways today. These vehicles do have legitimate value and many people, such as farmers, ranchers, carpenters, plumbers, and delivery people are justified in buying these vehicles. But a significant number of these vehicles are purchased by people simply as a fashion statement and who use them almost entirely as commuter vehicles.

The main reason that manufacturers of U. S. products don't appear too concerned about the energy consumption of their products is that their American customers don't seriously care about the energy consumption of these products. Capitalism is the most democratic economic system there is, for every time you spend a dollar, or refrain from spending a dollar, you are casting a vote. And despite what you may want to believe, your pocketbook vote counts a lot more than your ballot box vote.

The average American household can cut their electric use at least in half with little or no change in their lifestyle. My own electric consumption is less than 1/12 the typical American household (I use less than 1200 kW-hr/year, compared to about 17,000 kW-hr/year the Progress Energy website claims a typical house the same size, age, construction, locale, and furnishings as mine uses.). Though my lifestyle is admittedly different than most Americans, I feel it is still very comfortable with lots of "luxuries," such as a recording studio, a decent electronics lab, and fairly complete workshop with lots of power tools, including an arc welder. I also understand that my energy consumption is more typical of a middle class household in most other developed countries in the world.

There are plenty of more efficient alternatives for the products we buy, such as refrigerators, washing machines, automobiles, etc., but people aren't choosing them in any significant numbers. A perfect example is lighting. Compact fluorescent bulbs use one quarter the power of a comparable incandescent bulb, yet compact fluorescents are a hard sell. This is despite the fact that they are a fantastic investment. Where else can you typically get a better than 100 %/year aftertaxes return on your money (due to energy savings compared to initial cost). Most people risk 3 to 5 orders of magnitude more money on investments with far poorer and riskier returns. To me, the choice is a no-brainer.

It is also amazing how many products, such as microwave ovens, regular ovens, televisions, and stereos, still are consuming power when they are assumed to be "turned off." Many of the manufacturers of these products claim that the consumption of these "phantom loads" is negligible, but this isn't true if this consumption is 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. For example, my microwave oven is plugged into a switched multi-outlet strip so that I can turn it on only when I want to use it. If it weren't, I calculate that it would consume, over a year's time, twice as much energy when it is "off" than when it is in use. Don't take my word for it; measure the idle and operating currents and perform the calculations yourself for this and other appliances.

One simple, low cost way for manufacturers to help the cause of energy conservation is to simply include the power consumption of the product, both in use and when idle, on the product packaging. This would help those of us who really do care in making our product choices. Of course, the manufacturers of inefficient products would probably resist this, which in itself helps us make a choice. Another is to include a power switch on those products that have phantom loads so that those of us who don't need the features that this idle current supports can completely turn off the product.

In summary, the lack of honest concern by the typical American consumer is the main reason for the high U. S. energy consumption. Those who claim to be concerned are waiting for others to solve the problem for them. Until these individuals seriously look at their own lives and make the appropriate changes in their own lives, this situation is not going to change much.

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