What are the major uses of electricity?

Electricity Usage in the Home

We use electricity virtually every minute of every day, yet few of us understand the major uses of electricity in our homes.

By answering the simple question ‘how do we use electricity’ this post helps us understand our own electricity use.

Electricity uses by sector

Before we dive into how electricity is used around the home it is worth putting household electricity use in perspective.

Household electricity use generally makes up about a third of total electricity consumption  in most developed nations.  Using data from the European Union we can give an example of how electricity demand is split among different sectors.

Electricity Use by Sector

Among the twenty-seven countries that make up the European Union electricity is used primarily by industry (36%), households (31%) and the commercial sector (30%), while transport (3%) is a small share.  For this purpose the ‘commercial’ sector includes both private and public services while industry is mostly manufacturing.

Although this breakdown varies from country to country the three-way slit between industry, households and the commercial sector is a good rough guide for any developed country.  Total generation is typically 5-10% more than this total due to transmission and distribution losses.

So when we talk about household electricity use, it is worth remembering homes only account for a about a third of total electricity use.

How do we use electricity at home?

Average household electricity use varies greatly between countries.

The average American home uses two and a half times that of a UK household, more than four times that of an Italian home and over ten times that of an Indian house.

But while there are huge differences in household electricity use around the world we all tend to use electricity for similar kinds of activity.

American and UK household electricity use

Despite the fact that American households use two and a half times the electricity of UK homes they each use electricity for similar activities, with the notable exception air conditioning.

In the UK the major uses of electricity are entertainment (25%),  heating (19%), lighting (15%), refrigeration (13%), cooking (12%) and washing (12%), which includes clothes drying.

For the US they are entertainment (29%), air conditioning (22%), lighting (15%),  heating (9%), water heating (9%) and refrigeration (13%).

Because both of these figures are based on national averages they can be a little deceptive.  If for example at home uses electricity as its primary source of energy for cooking, water heating or heating these uses will likely be more dominant.

Beyond simple percentages it also helps to see where the watts are going.

Uses of electricity in the home

The average American home uses 11,700 kWh each year, costing around $1,400 and causing about 7 t CO2e in carbon emissions.

Reducing electricity usage is a big opportunity to cut both power bills and carbon emissions.  And the first step towards cutting electricity usage is understanding it.

Household electricity use in the US

This graph shows how much electricity the average American household used for different tasks in 2010.

By separating electricity use into different end uses we can see where the major demand for electricity is in US homes.  Air conditioning is a big user, so are lighting, water heating and refrigeration.  The ‘other’ group which includes gadgets and appliances is also a big draw, and has been growing sharply in recent years.

Understanding how electricity is used can help prioritize opportunities to reduce it.   For example this chart shows that defrosting a freezer has limited potential, while switching to low energy light bulbs or limiting air-con use will have greater potential.

Whether your home uses 2,000 or 10,000 kWh a year there will be simple ways you can save electricity in your home.  Understanding how we use electricity is a good starting point for taking control of our own use of electricity at home.

The logical next step to this post is to ask ‘how do I use electricity?’  We’ll tackle this next week by describing how to conduct your own electricity audit.