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How Netflix And Chill Is Reducing Overall Home Energy Consumption

(The image in this post is courtesy the study's authors)

The advent of technology devices and services, such as iPhones and Netflix, may have declined America’s overall home energy consumption, according to a new study by postdoctoral fellows at the University of Texas in Austin. The team analyzed data from the American Time Use Survey between 2003 and 2012 and found that Americans spend 7.8 more days at home on average in 2012 as compared to 2003. Staying at home is a less-energy intensive activity as compared to going out and the study’s authors found that this resulted in a reduction of national energy demand by 1700 trillion BTUs in 2012. 

The consumption and mix of energy at home has changed over the years due to the introduction of numerous consumer technology devices. For example, a trip to the movies involves energy spending on transportation. Watching Netflix at home is less energy-intensive. Similarly, carpooling through Uber has reduced spending on transportation and energy. The study’s authors found that Americans spent 1 to 2 fewer days traveling and 6.6 less days in non-home buildings, such as coffee shops. This trend was especially pronounced among the younger demographic. Americans between the ages of 18-24 were 70% more likely to be at home as compared to the rest of the population. Not surprisingly, energy use at home increased by about 480 trillion BTU.  There are, of course, several caveats to the findings. For example, the study's authors have not considered the electricity consumption of server farms, necessary to operate a service like Netflix. They have also not taken into account the gas consumption for trucks delivering e-commerce orders. 

A New York Times article points out a couple of flaws in the approach used by the study’s authors. For example, the authors have not considered situations where someone may be running an errand while going to or from work. According to Bob Simon, former staff director of the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, people are adding more trips to their commute. “They’re stopping to pick something up,” he said. Because the authors have only measured the number of trips (as opposed to the miles logged during that trip), their measurements may not be accurate.

So, what does the study mean for energy policy?  

“This is good news but also raises important concerns about making home energy use more efficient,” the study’s authors wrote. They rapped Trump’s efforts to cut the budget for EPA’s EnergyStar standard, which certifies energy-efficient devices for home use, in their blog post and have also made the case for changing home energy audits to include lifestyle choices. For example, people who work from home could adjust their electricity usage depending on time-of-use slots. The utility company could similarly calibrate and adjust distribution patterns for such people with those who commute to and from work depending on the time of day.

In a prior study, the study’s authors showed that differences in television viewing habits could help determine energy consumption patterns. For example, people who consumed more than 7 hours of television per day were responsible for 34 percent of overall energy consumption by TVs. The study recommended that flat panel televisions, which consume less electricity, could help mitigate their effect on overall consumption.

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Marcus Hearn's picture
Marcus Hearn

great article!