Putting your house on an energy diet is simple: airtight construction, smart heating and cooling design, and high-efficiency appliances. But simple doesn't mean easy. You might as well tell Americans they ought to lay off nacho chips and sign up for a daily Zumba class. The nation's power demands, like our waistlines, are growing ever more bloated.
Look at just one of the new energy guzzlers: the digital photo frame. This always-on gadget burns a barely noticeable $9 extra a year into the average household electric bill, says the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute. But the impact could be staggering. EPRI estimates that if every household in America owned one, it would take five medium-sized power plants just to keep those family photo slide shows rolling in the nation's living rooms. "I call these electronics the sleeping giants in our homes," says Thomas Reddoch, EPRI's director of energy utilization.
But there's a rising call for Americans to use less energy, either out of self-interested concern over escalating costs or genuine concern over the risk to the planet from global warming if the world's leading fossil fuel users continue on their current course. "The cleanest and cheapest kilowatt-hour is the one we do not have to produce," says Jim Rogers, chief executive of Duke Energy.
Goals. When the consulting firm McKinsey recently mapped out a possible pathway for U.S. carbon dioxide cuts at a cost that would not break the economy, almost 40 percent of the potential savings came from energy-efficiency steps that also would save people money. "It's a staggering amount of potential that could be an important step for achieving the carbon-abatement goals we have as a nation," says Ken Ostrowski, a McKinsey director.
Among the world's major economies, the United States is second only to Canada in energy use per person, but the nation's efficiency picture isn't all bad. Natural gas use per household is down significantly, thanks to vastly more efficient furnaces, better-insulated homes, and the population shift to the warmer South. As a result, overall energy use per U.S. household declined 26 percent between 1978 and 2001. But residential electricity use is surging, up 11 percent per household from 1993 to 2006 and 42 percent overall, as the number of gadget-filled households grows.
But research shows that with conservative measures that have fast payback, U.S. homes could become a third more energy efficient. "Green" builders everywhere know how to do it. Use 6-inch studs instead of two-by-fours for more wall cavity space to fill with insulation. In varying climates, use different kinds of high-performance windows to maximize sunlight or shield its intensity. And one simple, nontraditional step—designing ductwork so it's inside the home living space although still cleverly hidden—can cut family energy bills by a quarter to a third. Ductwork is so leaky that much of the heat or air conditioning in a home is lost. "Every time we build four new power plants to meet summer peak load, one of them is not necessary because it's generating nothing but cold air that's going into attics or crawl spaces," says Jeffrey Harris of the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit coalition of business and environmental groups. The alliance is among groups pushing for a national minimum standard in building codes.
The National Association of Home Builders supports voluntary efforts but not mandates. "If you look at the places with more stringent energy requirements, you're looking at places with high housing costs," says Carlos Martín, assistant staff vice president of NAHB. "Especially in the market we have now, with foreclosures and people not able to afford even a slight price increase, that's a concern."
But a low-priced home is no bargain in the long run if it wastes energy. "You may pay a few dollars more on your mortgage payment, but you'll pay many dollars less on your utility bill," Harris says. "It's the sum of those, in cash flow to consumers, that really matters." Certainly, the payback on such investments is quicker in states with high electricity rates. But if the nation takes steps to cut carbon emissions, as seems inevitable, the price paid for fossil-fueled electricity will get higher even in states where efficiency makes less economic sense today. "These are half-century assets," Harris argues. "Why should we build infrastructure that basically is going to become another kind of dinosaur?" NAHB counters that the far bigger problem is the dinosaurs already among us: existing homes.