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Electricity Use America*

August 16, 2001


Americans' Use of Electricity Jumped

Since 1949 -- How Much Do You Use?



Compared to your grandparents, you, personally, are an electricity hog.

How much effort are you putting into reducing your residential electricity use? Participate in the Question of the Day.

See charts showing residential energy usage.

Look around your house: There is probably at least one television, stereo and computer -- and possibly several more. In the kitchen, you're likely to have a microwave oven, automatic coffee maker and blender, and you may also have a bread maker, a can crusher or maybe even a food-bag sealer. Wander into the bathroom: Is there an electric toothbrush, razor, curling iron or shaving-cream warmer lying around? Aquarium? Water bed? Hot tub? Fax machine? What about a fly zapper or baby monitor? Is your computer always on? And by the way, how many hair dryers does your family own?

Only a century ago, the few American homes that were wired for electricity used it almost exclusively for lighting and a few small appliances. But most utility companies didn't offer energy to residences during daylight hours. A turn-of-the-century house might have only one socket delivering 100 watts of power, making large appliances impractical. Even to use a small appliance, such as an iron or ceiling fan, people might have to unscrew their single light bulb. There were frequent service disruptions, and residential customers were treated as third-class citizens after manufacturing and commercial users.

Today, a small electric towel warmer uses 100 watts of power, and a typical large home may consume well over 4,000 watts of electricity at a peak time, such as a late summer afternoon. Modern homes are wired to provide 12,000, or even more, watts, and a typical room will have at least four and often 12 or 16 electrical outlets. No wonder that since 1949, when the government began keeping national energy-use statistics, Americans have increased their annual use of household electricity seventeenfold, from 67 billion kilowatt hours to 1.1 trillion kilowatt hours.

Faced with energy shortages in California and elsewhere, President Bush has urged the industry to develop new sources of power -- even reviving shuttered nuclear plants. But little attention has been paid to curbing the country's burgeoning demand for electricity -- probably because it seems insatiable. Demand for power is likely to continue rising, government and industry officials say, because of several demographic trends. American homes are still getting larger, and big houses use more energy. Population booms in the South and Southwest have resulted in millions more housing units with central air conditioning, the second-biggest user of residential electricity after water heaters. Meanwhile, makers of computers, home appliances and entertainment equipment keep coming up with new gadgets that use electricity.

The amount of electricity consumed for heating, air conditioning, hot-water heating and refrigeration has remained fairly steady over the past 15 years, because of 1987 federal regulations mandating energy efficiency in large home appliances. But the number of small household appliances continue sucking up greater amounts of wattage. Security systems feed on electricity, as do swimming pool pumps and smoke detectors. Humidifiers and dehumidifiers, sump pumps and bun warmers, hot plates and snow blowers -- the list is endless.

Not long ago, household appliances like these were considered negligible compared with the big electricity gluttons such as space and water heaters and coolers. Small appliances were lumped together in one statistical category called "miscellaneous." Now miscellaneous energy is one of the largest and fastest-growing categories of energy use. Between 1976 and 1995, miscellaneous energy use in U.S. homes more than doubled, and it accounts for some 20% of all electricity used in U.S. homes, according to a 1998 study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

"In some homes, conventional uses of energy are dwarfed by miscellaneous appliance loads," notes Marla McWhinney, lead author of the Lawrence Berkeley study. For example, a heated water bed can use more electricity than an efficient refrigerator, and a 180-gallon coral-reef aquarium might need more electricity than a central-heating system and refrigerator combined.

Even when many appliances are "off," they're still using electricity to power clocks or remote control systems; the only way to shut them down completely is to unplug them. In addition, when plugged in, rechargers for gadgets like cellular telephones use electricity whether the phone is attached or not. "The trap we're in is there are all these small things no one is paying much attention to, and if they're not designed right, a lot of energy can get wasted," says Jonathan Koomey, an energy specialist at Lawrence Berkeley. "Nobody is going to call Sony and complain, 'This television is wasting $4 a year.' But in the aggregate, it's a big number."

Your grandparents probably had some electricity in their homes -- by 1930, seven of 10 American houses were wired. Utility companies that had been focusing almost exclusively on industrial customers began to realize that residences could help balance the level of demand between day and night.

Electric companies began working to increase residential consumption by promoting toasters, hot plates, ceiling fans and massagers. Even in the decade after 1929, when America was struggling through a depression, domestic electric consumption more than doubled, and, for the first time, surpassed commercial consumption.

After World War II, as the population grew, became more affluent and moved to suburbia, the pace of invention quickened, and televisions, dishwashers, washing machines and frost-free refrigerators became standard appliances in American homes. Children might have their own night lights, record players, clock radios.

Outside, people were lighting up their patios, heating their pools and firing up their electric rotisseries. In the 1970s, the personal computer started appearing in a few homes, and today more than 80% of American homes have some form of electric office equipment, according to the Energy Information Administration.

In the three years since Dr. McWhinney published her paper, many manufacturers of consumer electronics have joined the federal Energy Star program; under the program manufacturers agree to adhere to energy conservation standards in return for the right to carry an "Energy Star" label on their products, a signal many consumers now look for. While that may slow the rate of growth of miscellaneous electricity use, it's likely that nothing can stop it altogether. Not when there are digital karaoke machines, Weemotes (remote controls for children) and mouse pads that make frog noises.

Write to Cynthia Crossen at cynthia.crossen@wsj.com

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