March 14, 2023
The demand for electricity in the United States is expected to grow almost 30% by the year 2050. Globally, energy consumption is anticipated to nearly double during that same period. Energy, quite literally, powers our lives. It’s the hub of the wheel of progress from which all spokes of our modern world radiate.
Energy is fundamental for economic prosperity and improved quality of life. It has the power to ease the burden of our labors, bring comfort and enjoyment, improve our health and safety, and transform our lives.
Understanding real-world consequences
For most of modern history, however, we have collectively behaved as if our supply of energy was endless and that we could use it without regard for limitations or any potential future impacts. Unfortunately, that short-sighted approach has left us with challenging real-world consequences that today’s generations are only beginning to grasp and address. Environmental impacts, competition over dwindling resources, and economic pressures continue to make energy an ever-present force in our lives. We expect it to be reliable and readily available, we want it to be sourced in a way that minimizes the negative impacts to our planet, and we need it to be produced and delivered in a manner that makes it as affordable as possible. These are critical priorities that have a variety of solutions, but in my opinion, the best way to begin addressing these issues is by putting energy efficiency first.
In the most general sense, energy efficiency refers to operating the systems and appliances in our homes and businesses with the least amount of energy required without sacrificing comfort, productivity or quality of life. More broadly, it’s ensuring we’re each doing what we can to decrease our collective demand for energy so that we can help keep energy costs as low as possible, minimize the conflicts that arise over the competition for resources, and reduce the impacts to our environment. For most of us, the path to being energy efficient begins in the home, but to understand how we can become more energy efficient, we must first understand how we are using energy in the first place.
How we're using energy
Think of the home as a system, with all the components interacting and influencing one another. There are three main factors in a home (or any building) that determine energy usage and efficiency:
All three are key in determining how energy efficient your home is, and any one area that is ignored will have a negative impact on energy usage and efficiency.
Preventing air leaks, having adequate levels of properly installed insulation, the location and condition of doors, windows, vents and ductwork, moisture control, and proper building maintenance are just a few critical aspects of structural influences on a home’s energy use. Inside the home, the HVAC system, water heater, appliances, electronics and lighting are all equipment and components that determine energy usage. Finally, we have our own behavior inside the home as we utilize those devices and components that add another layer to our home’s energy profile.
To help you visualize ...
Imagine living in a 2-story house with the furnace and air handler located in the basement. Your bedroom is on the second floor, on the opposite side of the house from where the furnace is. To top it off, your ductwork for the upstairs runs through your poorly ventilated attic and is only partially covered with insulation. You also have an aging air conditioner that hasn’t been serviced for several years.
In the summer, your bedroom is always hot. You keep adjusting your thermostat, but it just doesn’t seem to help enough. You’d like the temperature in that room to be around 70⁰F. Even though the conditioned air may be leaving the air handler in the basement at around 50⁰F, by the time it travels through the length of the ductwork all the way up to and through the attic (that may be 120⁰F or more in the summertime,) when the air finally makes its way out of the vent in the bedroom it could easily be 80⁰F or more.
The result is that you are left in a situation where you must choose between comfort or cost. In the summer, you’d have to set your thermostat so low and run your struggling AC for so long to make that room comfortable that you would see a noticeable increase on your bill, and you would likely still never get your bedroom to be as comfortable as you’d like it. This is an all-to-common example of how aspects of structure, equipment and behavior are all impacted by one another, creating this seemingly hopeless cycle that just leaves you uncomfortable, unhappy and with an empty wallet.
If, however, you properly insulated that ductwork and increased ventilation in your attic, you would reduce the amount of heat that is transferred to the conditioned air as it moves through the ducts to the bedroom. Combine that with a regularly serviced AC that operates at optimal performance, and you’d have air coming out of the vent at a temperature low enough to cool down the room and make you feel comfortable. You wouldn’t need to keep cranking down your thermostat and, in turn, you’d see a reduction in summertime energy usage meaning more energy savings and more money in your wallet.
The house-as-a-system approach
The house-as-a-system approach is the core of how we evaluate and approach energy efficiency. By looking at the entire system holistically, we can determine what is truly happening in the home and what the priorities are. If you’re interested in learning more about how your home functions, there are excellent no-cost resources you can take advantage of.
You can do research at energy.gov, you can watch YouTube videos on "building science" and you can have one of AES Indiana’s home energy advisors perform a no-cost home assessment. Also, stay tuned for future energy efficiency posts where I’ll dive into more detail on specific aspects of building science.
The path to being more energy efficient begins with that first step of understanding how we are currently using energy. Once you begin to understand your usage, you can then take steps to reduce it. When we all work to reduce our energy consumption, we can have a huge collective impact that helps decrease strain on the grid and improve reliability, minimizes the negative impacts to the environment, and keeps energy prices as low as possible. We can make a difference All Together.
For more information about the growth of energy demand, see CNBC and Statista.