energy Icon

Don't know where to start? Read about all the issues of energy use here. Links to actions which relate to each issue can be found in orange.

“In 2008, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 11,040 kWh, an average of 920 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per month” (EIA).

Minnesota, with 2,290,881 consumers, had an average monthly consumption of 802 kWh in 2010. With an average retail price of 10 cents per kWh, the average bill was $80 a month (EIA Table 5A).

While we typically think of our personal energy use as including only what we use in our own homes (space heating/cooling, water heating, lighting), our lifestyles are also responsible for much more significant uses. It is important to focus on both the energy we use in our homes on a daily basis as well as the energy involved in the larger systems we support with our lifestyles. For example, the foods we choose to buy determine how much energy is required to transport them, the water we use requires energy for infrastructure and cleaning, where we choose to live determines how much energy is required to get us from place to place. In this way, energy is addressed in all the previous sections of this project (food, water, waste and transportation), and the focus of the ‘energy’ section is on those actions which address energy use alone. Much of this is in the form of electricity, but some actions also address other energy sources such as heating and cooling energy.

Average Residential Energy Consumption

The biggest energy user in homes across the nation is that which is used to heat and cool spaces, accounting for a total of 40% of all residential energy. Following heating and cooling energy is water heating at 13% and lighting at 10%. After these three big single users, a multitude of appliances account for small percentages of energy use. While these uses (refrigeration, clothes drying and washing, cooking, computers and more) only account for 1%-5% each, they add up to a total of 37% of all energy (including the category ‘other uses’ which includes all other appliances). In this way, energy use in homes can be divided into four categories:

  • (1) Space Heating and Cooling
  • (2) Water Heating
  • (3) Lighting
  • (4) Appliances


Space heating and cooling accounts for by far the largest portion of all energy use in homes across the United States. A total of 40% of all energy is dedicated to indoor temperature control, 24% dedicated to heating and 16% to cooling. Because this is an average percentage for the entire nation, many climates such as Minnesota have far greater heating percentages and climates such as Phoenix, AZ have much larger cooling percentages. Unfortunetly, although, space heating and cooling are the largest energy use in our homes, we are also dependant upon these systems to create inhabitable environments indoors.

This is a tough dilemma because individuals have very little control over modifying their environments (existing infrastructure) or changing energy sources. This means that making a change in this aspect of energy use, calls for a very different kind of action than is required in many other categories where simple lifestyle habits can go a long way to changing consumption of resources. This action calls for participants to re-evaluate their comfort zones and experiment with alternative solutions to indoor temperature control which do not compromise their quality of life.

Everyone has different tolerances for temperature. Our threshold for comfort has been increasingly minimized as access to cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy allowed us to create indoor environments with fine-tuned temperature controls. Because of this, we are often out of touch with the temperature outdoors, moving from one climate controlled environment to another throughout our day. In extreme examples, such as moving from an air-conditioned office in Phoenix, AZ in August at 65 degrees to a car parked in the sun at 120 degrees the difference can be enough to put our bodies into shock. Humans have always found ways to moderate the temperature in our environments to our comfort. This action focuses on how to utilize more passive, energy-reducing strategies and test our comfort levels. Options vary by the season and local climate. Options for using less heating energy include experimenting with using portable space heaters to heat only the space being occupied, or using a programmable thermostat. Options for reducing cooling energy include setting up a natural ventilation system with strategically opened windows and using portable and ceiling fans.


Although ‘unplug your appliances’ is a mantra that is nothing new in the sustainable living world, it is a high impact action in the scheme of total energy use in our homes. Appliance electricity use accounts for 37% of total household energy across the nation. The largest users are refrigeration, television, clothes dryers, computers and cooking which account for 3-5% each. While many other appliances may only account for 1% or less of total energy, their collective use adds up be the second largest energy user in homes today.

Refrigerators are the largest appliance in our homes, and also account for the largest percentage of daily appliance electricity use at 5% of total household energy. While a typical refrigerator uses only around 68 watts/hour compared to a hair dryer which uses 1200 watts/hour, when the time each of these appliances are being used is taken into account the numbers tell a very different story. A refrigerator, which is on periodically all day uses 1,700 watts/hour/day versus the hair dryer, used for only 5 minutes uses 200 watts/hour/day. In this way, when metering appliances for how much energy they use, it is important to take into account how long each appliance is used. Those appliance such as refrigerators which are on all day, are often the largest energy users.

Clothes dryers are typically the second-biggest electricity-using appliance after the refrigerator, costing about $85 to operate annually. According to the California Energy Commission Consumer Energy Center, over its expected lifetime of 18 years, the average clothes dryer will cost approximately $1,530 to operate. Obviously, clothes drying energy can be eliminated entirely through hanging all laundry to dry on a clothesline. In addition, clothes will last quite a bit longer when allowed to dry naturally rather than with extreme heat.

Most people may be surprised to see where energy is used in their home. Appliances we consider to be huge energy users may not be significant when seen in the context of total home energy. At the same time, low-wattage appliances may be contributing to a large portion of home electricity use depending on the duration of time they are on during the day. Simply tracking home electricity use can go a long way toward gaining an awareness of where electricity is used in your home.

Taking this a step further, tracking the energy use of the appliances in your home can create help you to create a targeted plan for minimizing unnecessary appliance use.

In addition, much of the electricity use in our homes is unnecessary because it is from appliances drawing energy while not in use. This is known as ‘standby power’ and refers to the energy used by some products when they are turned off but still plugged into an outlet. While this standby power sometimes provides useful functions such as remote control, clock displays, and timers, in other cases it is simply wasted power as a result of leaving an electronic device or power adapter plugged in. A study done by graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley found that standby power consumption averaged 67 watts per household, more than you would waste by burning a 60-watt light bulb day and night all year long. Standby usage ranged from 6-26% of the home annual electricity use (Sanders). On average, the homes measured contained 19 appliances using standby power. According to Energy Star, the average household spends $100 per year to power devices while they are off (or in standby mode). On a national basis, standby power accounts for more than 100 billion kilowatt hours of annual U.S. Electricity consumption and more than $10 billion in annual energy costs.


Energy used for water heating accounts for 13% of all home energy use in the United States. It is the second largest single energy user after space heating and cooling. Of the water a typical household uses each day, at least half of that water is warm or hot, the majority of this use from showering. Although eliminating hot water entirely is unrealistic, taking a close and conscious look at how much heated water is used in different forms throughout the day can create a better understanding of how to limit this use without decreasing your quality of life. For example, turning shower water off when soaping up, or using room temperature water to wash hands are simple lifestyle changes that can reduce this use dramatically.


Lighting accounts for 10% of the average U.S. household energy budget but a simple improvement can be made by updating lighting to more modern technology. Incandescent bulbs are still the least expensive on the market for up front cost, but they are ancient technology. While compact fluorescent still have a higher up-front cost, they undoubtably save money over the lifetime of the bulb. According to ENERGY STAR, a 60 watt incandescent has an estimated energy cost of $7.32 per year while an equivalent lumen compact fluorescent light (CFL) of 13 watts costs only $1.57 per year. LED lights are slightly cheaper at this point at 1.50 per year, but still have a large up-front cost. Replacing traditional bulbs that are still operating with qualified CFLs allows you to recover your costs in about 6 months and these bulbs will last an average of 9 years, saving 75% of the energy along the way.


One billion people in the world still use only the amount of energy which is available to them from the sun each day. While these people are not capturing the sun’s energy through solar panels, they capture it through their crops and to passively heat their homes. As fossil fuel sources are depleted, the entire human population will have to return to a life in which we rely on the sun as an energy source along with other renewables.

Using only the sunlight-energy which is landing on the earth’s surface each day (as opposed to sunlight-energy resources which were formed over millions of years such as oil and coal) will allow us to live in this energy balance again, creating a way of living that can truly sustain itself. Furthermore, sizing our solar arrays to what our need truly is, instead of just replacing coal with sunlight, will allow a more realistic energy future.

While all of the actions within this section are pieces to the puzzle of learning to live within our sustainable energy resources, this last action is the ‘end goal’, to learn what it means to live with only the energy resources we can capture from the sun each day. While this is a difficult actions for individuals to accomplish at this point due to our current infrastructures and system of energy distribution and sourcing, it is a valuable experiment to test what this lifestyle can be like.