Individual Energy Savings – Easy enough!


Individual Energy Savings – Easy enough!


There are dozens of ways in which a single consumer can save energy. There are direct and indirect ways, and they take place across all areas of a person’s life. I will first focus on the home, as buildings consume 40% of U.S. primary energy, including 72% of U.S. electricity and 36% of natural gas[i].
Direct Energy Use

  • Energy efficient home structure:The majority of people live in homes that they bought from someone else or that were built before energy efficient design became ubiquitous.  Home energy audits help consumers understand whether they need to make major investments in windows or doors, or whether low-cost, basic weather stripping and sealing of leaky areas can reduce energy use[ii].  We live in a house in a tree-shaded area in Northern Virginia that was built in 1983. Its basic structure is fairly energy efficient, according to an audit we had done in 2008.  Still, the auditor recommended some critical improvements, including insulating the gas water heater and replacing leaky recess lighting on the upper floor, which we implemented. Over time, we have replaced the front door and one door to the patio, both of which were showing signs of age by letting cold air in and cool air out.
  • Heating/Cooling: The largest energy expense is related to heating and cooling, regardless of system.  Our electricity bill moves down during mild springs and falls, while it peaks in December/ January and July/August. In spring 2015, we installed a geothermal heating and cooling system. Over the summer, the use of electricity for the air conditioner turned out to be less than with the regular air conditioning system, even though the system was operating most of the time during a particularly hot and humid summer. However, I should add that we keep the house at lower than average temperatures in the winter (around 71 degrees Fahrenheit, and quite a bit warmer than average in the summer (78 degrees F).  Seasonal clothing in our household is not just a fashion statement. I am curious to see what the winter months will bring in terms of electricity, but at least we won’t be using natural gas for heating anymore which can save between $150 and $300 per winter month.
  • Lighting:Replacing incandescent lamps with LEDs results in major energy savings over time, even though the upfront cost is still significant and a barrier for many households.  We started quite a few years ago to replace burned-out incandescent bulbs with CFLs and have gradually switched to LEDs.
  • Appliances:  Appliances have become vastly more efficient over the past 40 years. The difference between the same size refrigerator in 1974 and 2001 is 1,350 kWh per year.  The saving over time from 1,350 kWh/year times 150 million units is 200 TWh/year, or the equivalent to 50 avoided 1 GW plants[iii]. This is very impressive.  Our household has made it a point to pay close attention to appliances. For the past 10+ years that we have owned the house, we have replaced old appliances with Energy-Star-rated new appliances and avoided super-sized models. A secondary refrigerator in the garage, model date 1992, which was gobbling up enormous amounts of energy, was sent off to be recycled.  We wash laundry mostly with cold water and, weather permitting, dry larger items on the patio. I use the convection cycle on my oven, and I try as hard as I can to unplug devices when they are not in use.
  • Natural gas use:  We still use natural gas for cooking and for heating water. The use of gas for stove-top cooking is minimal, and we keep the water boiler on a lower temperature when there are just two people in the house. When we have guests, we turn it up to make sure everybody has a chance to shower with hot water. Limiting showers to 4-5 minutes also reduces gas use sharply.

The above are some basic examples of how a single consumer can save energy in his or her home. The transportation sector offers further opportunities to save, rather than use, energy.

  • Cars:  Consumer choices for efficient cars are still limited by technology and associated infrastructure. However, there are obvious ways to save on transportation related energy use. Opting for a smaller car rather than an SUV, investing in a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or electric car, all contribute to lower energy use.
  • Public Transportation: Larger metropolitan areas offer public transit systems that run efficiently and provide several benefits in one: taking cars off the congested roads and city streets, reducing the need for building more and more highways (avoiding energy used in construction), and giving time back to users for reading or just relaxing while taking a train. I am fortunate to have a (new) metro stop in my area; though still not within walking distance. I have done much of my required reading for this course on the way to and from work while not using gasoline in congested traffic.

Indirect Use of Energy

It is much harder to save energy when we don’t have control over how something is produced. In our modern day life, we rely on many things to make our busy days less stressful, and we buy very energy intensive items.  Examples range from basic packaging for food items, such as lettuce and other tightly packed convenience food to small appliances that come in hard plastic shells that cannot be opened or recycled.  The Zero Waste movement has not arrived in Washington DC yet. I reluctantly admit that I have not joined the movement quite yet as some of the benefits of packaging are still too great to give it up completely. There are, however, some ways to save energy – indirectly:

  • Eat local: Most food requires energy input from the moment it is being grown or prepared to the moment we enjoy it in our own homes. Many food items are grown miles away or across the globe.  For example, when one calculates the energy used in shipping tropical fruit or other produce, almost all food is energy-intensive.
  • Food Recycling: The kitchen is a tremendous energy sink.  I am talking about food, leftovers and food waste which, if thrown into the trash, create the need for handling it and using energy in doing so.  Three years ago, when we moved back from Russia, I decided that I was going to compost food waste from now on. I bought a composter and kitchen pails for convenience so that the daily food waste (fruit and vegetable peels, eggshells, used coffee filters with coffee grind, etc etc) could be stored until I would take it to the composter outside. I have been using the compost-turned-earth to supplement the soil in my garden, instead of using fertilizer. With excellent results.
  • Other Recycling: Most consumers have access to recycling services or bins. Recycling paper, glass, and anything else that is appropriate for recycling has become commonplace in many areas in the United States.  While this may not be a direct saving of energy, it does save resources, and to the extent that plastic is indeed recyclable, will reduce the need for more plastics from petroleum.

The list of things that individuals can do save energy is much longer.  There are limits, and these are mainly available better and affordable technology, as well as information.  Still, if most people took one or more of the above steps over time, the collective energy savings would likely be tremendous.


by Marlena Hurley, student in 425.601.fa15, Principles and Applications of Energy Technology.


[i] Energy Efficiency Policy in the United States: Overview of Trends at Different Levels of Government; Elizabeth Doris, Jacquelin Cochran, and Martin Vorum, Technical Report, NREL, December 2009


[iii] The Art of Energy Efficiency: Protecting the Environment with better Technology”, Arthur H. Rosenfeld.


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