November 8th, 2020 by Carolyn Fortuna
Through consumption behavior, households are responsible for 72% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Most of this energy is for the provision of lighting, heating, cooling, and air conditioning. It’s time to consider lifestyles as policy targets of zero emissions policies and modeling efforts, too, as individuals’ voluntary reductions in home energy usage are barely a starting point in reducing consumer-generated carbon emissions.
Households are key actors in reaching the 1.5 °C goal under the Paris Agreement (which the US seems now poised to rejoin with the election of Joe Biden to the presidency!). However, the possible contribution and position of households in climate policies isn’t really well understood by most legislators, so upcoming climate policy strategies will need to elevate household energy usage and emissions to a much higher priority.
The provision of good indoor environmental quality, while achieving energy and cost efficient operation of the heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning plants in buildings, requires a multi-pronged approach. A classic paper in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy offers us a primer on the confluence of factors that contribute to elevated household energy consumption standards. The comfort of building occupants is dependent on many parameters including air speed, temperature, relative humidity, and quality, in addition to lighting and noise.
Quality measures of a household’s energy is generally broken into 3 categories:
- “Good indoor environmental quality” is the perceived condition of comfort that building occupants experience due to the physical and psychological conditions to which they are exposed by their surroundings.
- “Energy efficiency” is related to the provision of the desired environmental conditions while consuming the minimal quantity of energy.
- “Cost efficiency” is the financial expenditure on energy relative to the level of environmental comfort and productivity that the building occupants attained. Cost efficiency can be enhanced by improving the indoor environmental quality and energy efficiency of a building.
Factoring in Lifestyles to the Home Energy Consumption Equation
The increased availability of reliable and efficient energy services stimulates new household energy development alternatives, but lifestyle expectations may curtail attempts to achieve ambitious climate crisis targets.
House size is the largest determinant of domestic energy consumption, so much so that some critics call for attention to be directed at the confluence of factors that influence floor area per capita. This emphasis on square footage would be in addition to questions of lifestyle expectations, energy sufficiency, and invisible energy policies. Human agency in the choice of equipment and housing, social processes of allocation of these goods, and behavioral choices and actions in energy usage – such as selecting temperature settings and usage patterns of appliances and systems — are generally not considered within the borders of typical energy policy.
One solution begins with practice-oriented design, which co-creates innovative technology with the user. Partially, this can be achieved through the use of automated technology, which enables practices to act independently of the user. Even more importantly, the success of automation must be accompanied by an understanding of the home system of practice, occupant needs, and skills.
Smart technology allows homeowners to take control of their energy usage through a variety of smart-home energy-saving strategies. Smart-home hubs can turn appliances off completely when not in use, eliminating the energy drain caused by “idling” appliances and improving energy conservation. Smart thermostats and AI-powered water and energy monitoring systems are forging a path to a brighter, emission-reduced, less expensive future.
Attitudes About Home Energy Saving Devices
Schneider Electric has released survey data which shows that most people in the US have little knowledge about the degree to which home energy usage contributes to emissions. Some key aspects of its report include:
- Consumers shift blame to corporations and the government for energy use over the areas they have within their own control, despite homes using 1/3 of yearly electricity.
- The survey shows a disconnect with respondents having more concern toward improving energy efficiency (2/3) vs. emissions (half). Consumers put heavier emphasis on cost savings rather than a social commitment to lower carbon footprints.
- Consumers view simple actions as the top efficiency activity, namely, just turning the lights off (73%), compared to more impactful solutions such as home insulation (28%). This may warrant policy direction toward support and education advance on broader energy efficiency options, especially as consumers are willing to spend money – 43% said they’d spend $500 to $5,000 on energy efficiency upgrades.
The report reveals that issues of sustainability and climate change are of moderate concern to US consumers. Most feel that large businesses – like industrial centers and the transportation industry – hold the most responsibility for carbon emissions and should bear the brunt of the work in reducing emissions.
The data breaks out according to age groups.
Millennials: Among generations, US Millennials are the most interested in the cost/savings benefits of smart home tech. Millennials are the most willing to sacrifice comfort to reduce energy use (45%), even though they’re also most likely to believe it would require difficult lifestyle changes (37%). While they share concerns about privacy (55%), almost two-thirds (63%) also say they’re interested in how the devices can reduce energy bills. Over half (53%) say it’s an easy way to reduce energy use. While Millennials might be the least likely to remember to turn off a light, they’re more likely to have made bigger investments in energy reduction and sustainability: over a third (36%) have purchased a smart thermostat and a quarter have installed solar panels/a renewable energy source at their homes. Millennials are the most likely of the generations to have smart home tech: over 4-in-5 Millennials own at least one device, compared to just 47% of Boomers (Gen Z: 76%; Gen X: 72%).
Gen Z: Even though Gen Z has the lowest rate of home ownership, they are most likely to plan on purchasing a home in the next 5 years, and over half (51%) say that smart home technology makes a home more desirable and 40% say they’d pay more for a home already equipped with it.
Baby Boomers: Although Boomers are least likely to be concerned about carbon emissions and reducing their carbon footprint, they lead the other generations in top methods of home sustainability. Over 4-in-5 report they turn off lights/electronics when not in use (compared to 64% of Millennials), and over half (51%) say they’ve already upgraded to energy efficient appliances. Nearly half (45%) have even installed energy efficient windows – the highest of any generation. Compared to other generations, Boomers are particularly happy with their purchases. They’re most likely to be happy with their smart doorbells (96%), smart thermostats (91%), and voice assistants (88%).
Considering Home Energy Usage & Carbon Footprints
Research in the field on home energy usage and resulting carbon emissions offers hope and some modulated critiques.
A combined theoretical analysis and data crunching offers guidance that behavioral change can achieve a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in European high-income countries. The HOPE research project investigated household preferences for reducing emissions in 4 European cities in France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden.
- Car and plane mobility, meat and dairy consumption, as well as heating are the most dominant components of household footprints.
- Household living situations (demographics, size of home) greatly influence the household potential to reduce their footprint, even more than country or city location.
- Household decisions can be sequential and temporally dynamic, shifting through different phases such as childhood, adulthood, and illness.
- Short term voluntary efforts will not be sufficient by themselves to reach the drastic reductions needed to achieve the 1.5 °C goal; instead, households need a regulatory framework supporting their behavioral changes.
- There is a mismatch between the roles and responsibilities conveyed by current climate policies and household perceptions of responsibility.
Using data on ∼93 million individual homes, another study performed what is likely the most comprehensive view of greenhouse gases from residential energy use in the US. The authors examined nationwide rankings of carbon intensity of homes in states and ZIP codes and offered correlations between affluence, floor space, and emissions. Scenarios demonstrate this sector cannot achieve the Paris Agreement 2050 target by decarbonizing electricity production alone. Meeting this target will also necessitate a broad portfolio of zero emission energy solutions and behavioral change associated with housing preferences. To support policy, reductions in floor space and increases in density needed to build low-carbon communities may be needed.
Efforts aimed at increasing renewable energy consumption should adopt policies that include thoughtful analysis of home lifestyle decisions that affect energy usage. Increased access to home energy storage units is one such solution. Residential and individual company spaces can certainly benefit from energy analysis.
But the theme that seems prevalent in the literature is that the amount of space that we devote to living will need to be reduced if we are to more efficiently control home energy usage and resulting emissions.
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