Learn where your electricity comes from, the greenhouse gas emissions its production creates, and the relationship between electricity consumption and climate change.
The warnings have been dire. Countries around the world must take drastic action to curb their carbon dioxide emissions. Otherwise global temperatures will continue to rise. And changes in our environment will be detrimental to all of our health and well-being.
A majority of Americans believe we need to do more to reduce our negative impact on the environment. On the individual level, there is a lot of focus on using fewer single-use plastics and eating less meat. Changes like that are certainly important! But we wondered how many people have made the connection between the electricity we use in our homes and our contribution to climate change?
In this piece we dive into how much electricity we use in our homes; where that electricity comes from; and the connection between our electricity consumption and climate change.
A Refresher: Our Home Electricity Use
Let’s start with a quick refresher from our previous post on how we use electricity at home.
The typical American household uses about 11,000 kWh of electricity per year. This is up almost 20% since 1990, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Heating and air-conditioning represent the two largest single-use draws of electricity in the average home, followed by water heating.
Measuring household electricity use provides only one side of the equation. That’s because the electricity we use to power our TVs, refrigerators, air conditioners, etc. is technically a secondary energy source. This means that it’s produced by converting other sources of energy—such as coal or wind—into the electricity that comes out of an outlet.
Where Our Electricity Comes From
The U.S. EIA has not provided a recent estimate of the primary fuel sources used to deliver residential electricity, specifically. But looking at the overall state of U.S. electricity production, we begin to understand more about how flipping a switch on our wall could be making climate change worse.
Why? Fossil fuels account for nearly two-thirds of the electricity generated in the U.S. today. And while power plants burning fossil fuels accounted for about 63% of all U.S. electricity generation, they made up nearly 100% of electricity-related CO2 emissions.
The Emissions from our Electricity Consumption
To be sure, households aren’t the biggest culprits when it comes to overall emissions of greenhouse gases. That distinction goes to the transportation sector. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), transport accounts for nearly 30% of all direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions.
But! Get this: households do account for the largest share of electricity-related greenhouse gas emissions, just ahead of the commercial sector.
In 2018, electricity generation in the U.S. totaled 4.17 trillion kWh. The carbon dioxide emissions produced by that generation neared 2 billion metric tons. That equates to nearly 1 pound of emissions per kWh (0.99 pounds, to be precise).
Let’s put this into context for you. Driving 1 mile in a typical passenger vehicle generates about 0.89 pounds of carbon dioxide. For comparison, that means a year’s worth of heating and cooling generates more carbon dioxide than driving from New York to Seattle (3,144.9 versus 2,538.4 pounds, respectively).
While the nation as a whole generated hundreds of thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide emissions for electricity generation, these numbers vary dramatically by state.
Electricity Consumption & Climate Change
The U.S. EIA expects that our use of air conditioning will rise from about 14% of residential electricity used today to more than 21% by 2050. Meanwhile, the world will continue to warm. Winters will be warmer, and summers will be hotter—in some cases, dramatically.
It’s not all gloom and doom, though. The U.S. managed to record a modest drop (2%) in greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Experts believe this was largely related to an ongoing shift from coal to natural gas. While natural gas is a fossil fuel, it produces far less CO2 than other fuels. For example, anthracite coal produces nearly double the CO2 as natural gas.
And there is significant opportunity from individual changes in how we use our cars and the electricity in our homes.
For example, American households are expected to consume 82.2% more electricity to cool their homes in 2050 than today. Experts predict that we will continue to rely on fossil fuels over this period—even if they are cleaner than coal. These two facts combined are hardly good news.That said, the U.S. Department of Energy advises that adjusting the thermostat by just 10° for eight hours per day would save the average household 10% on its electricity bill. Or the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions as a trip from New York City to Boston!
For example, many of us have been catching up on our Netflix during the COVID-19 quarantine. We can make a difference while still enjoying our favorite entertainment. How? Streaming a two-hour movie through a video game console generates nearly 16 times the emissions as streaming the movie on a smart TV. So opt for the smart TV. Or a laptop is even more energy efficient!
As you can see, there is a direct link between our electricity consumption and climate change. Imagine if each and every one of the 325 million people in the U.S. alone made changes to how they drive and use energy in their day-to-day.
Average people can have a huge impact by making some easy adjustments to their habits. To get these energy saving strategies straight to your inbox, subscribe to the WattDoesItUse blog.