Is Technology Making Us More Energy Efficient?

Green Building

Is Technology Making Us More Energy Efficient?

Recently, the creative folks at GOOD and Oliver Munday collaborated to visually interpret statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Academy of Engineering regarding our nation’s workforce productivity (that is, unit of output per hour) coinciding with the emergence of various technologies like fiber optics, the worldwide web, and notebook computers. In general, the data suggests that technology has indeed made us significantly more productive over the last 50 years.

This information got me thinking. Has technology also made us more energy efficient? Our refrigerators, microwaves, dish washers, clothes dryers, televisions, lighting fixtures, and furnaces have all certainly become much more energy efficient as their technology developed. So, I consulted the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration for energy consumption data. What I discovered was that US energy use per capita has actually risen by about 50 million BTUs per year compared to 50 years ago (Fig. 1). That stands to reason. We have more gadgets now than we use to. But what was even more interesting was the larger trendline over the long-term dataset. The trendline, while inclined, is relatively flat. This suggests that as we take on more technological gadgetry in our daily lives (laptops, flat screen televisions, smart phones, wireless networks, etc.) the coinciding improvements in the energy efficiency of our technology is more or less “equaling out” our total energy consumption.

Figure 1: Energy Consumption per Person

U.S. Energy Information Administration / Annual Energy Review 2009

Report No. DOE/EIA-0384(2009)

Release Date: August 19, 2010

Something else I noticed in the EIA data was the steady long-term rise in our nation’s total energy consumption (Fig. 2). The United States was self-sufficient in energy until the about 1960. At which point, consumption began to outpace domestic US production (but that’s an issue for another day). The takeaway germane to this discussion is the positive trendline and steady rise in total US energy consumption. (Though, the relatively sharp decline since the onset of the latest economic recession is an interesting phenomenon.)

Figure 2: Primary Energy Overview

U.S. Energy Information Administration / Annual Energy Review 2009

Report No. DOE/EIA-0384(2009)

Release Date: August 19, 2010

So, if our energy consumption per person is holding steady yet our total national energy consumption is steadily rising, then obviously our population is growing. Data from the US Census Bureau clearly indicates that the US population is steadily increasing (Fig. 3).

Figure 3: Historical Population in the U.S.

Data from: U.S. Census Data provided by Minnesota Population Center

Last updated: June 17, 2010

Graphic from: Google

One must assume that the US population growth will continue on its current trajectory for the foreseeable future. Therefore, if our nation’s energy consumption level is to once again match or be below our energy production level, we must find a way to either produce vastly more energy or consume vastly less energy. In reality, it will likely take a combination of both. Marginal reductions in consumption per person can have a noticeable effect on our nation’s total energy consumption level. We must rely on technology to accomplish this. However, it would appear that the rate of technological efficiency needs to dramatically outpace the rate at which we add more technology to our daily lives, in order for our energy production to ever have a chance of exceeding energy consumption again.

Make no mistake about it, unless improvements in technology can dramatically reduce the energy consumption in our individual lives, as the country’s population continues to steadily grow we must find a way to provide evermore energy (whether produced domestically, imported, or both) to our nation’s citizenry – and a lot of it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *