What are the Major Uses of Electricity?

electricityusage

What uses the most electricity in a 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.

One third of electricity use is for the home globally

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.

electricitybysector
Electricity use by sector in the EU (source: Eurostat)

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.

What uses the most electricity in the home?

Average household electricity use varies greatly between countries. The average American home uses two and a half times that of a UK household. Compared to an Italian home, it uses more than four times. And compared to an Indian home it is a mind boggling ten times more. Even though there are huge differences in household electricity use, we all tend to use electricity for similar kinds of activity. Below we pulled out and analyzed the data collected by the EIA survey of households to show what uses the most electricity in a home.

What uses electricity mostAverage kWh / personPercentage
All cooling (AC, air handler, fans)71622.72%
All heating (except water)59418.85%
Water heating49415.69%
Lighting37311.85%
All refrigerators (first, second)2538.05%
Entertainment (TV, streaming)2497.92%
Clothes (washing, drying)1805.72%
Cooking (stove, microwave)912.89%
Humidifier, dehumidifier662.09%
Separate freezers591.86%
Pool and hot tub541.71%
Dish-washers210.65%
What uses the most electricity in home as ordered from highest to lowest, according to survey of households (source: EIA.gov survey)

In a separate article we cover each of the appliances that use the most electricity. The total electricity use per person is about 3150 kWh per year. This number is pretty close to 1/3 of the 11,000 kWh used by a household over a year. Notably, the biggest use is cooling which includes air conditioning, ceiling fans, air handlers. The second biggest use is heating, which we separated out from water heat.

The breakdown of electricity use is similar across the world

American households use two and a half times the electricity of UK homes. Despite that, 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 air conditioning (22%), heating (19%), water heating (16%), lighting (12%),  entertainment (8%), and refrigeration (8%).

Because both of these figures are based on national averages they can be a little deceptive.  If for example a 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.

What uses the most electricity in a home?

The average American home uses 11,700 kWh each year. The cost is around $1,400 and it causes 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.

what uses the most electricity in a home - breakdown

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 condition, lighting, water heating and refrigeration are the biggest users of electricity

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. Switching to low energy light bulbs or limiting air-con use will have greater potential to reduce electricity use.

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.

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.

Lindsay Wilson
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I founded Shrink That Footprint in November 2012, after a long period of research. For many years I have calculated, studied and worked with carbon footprints, and Shrink That Footprint is that interest come to life.

I have an Economics degree from UCL, have previously worked as an energy efficiency analyst at BNEF and continue to work as a strategy consultant at Maneas.  I have consulted to numerous clients in energy and finance, as well as the World Economic Forum.

When I’m not crunching carbon footprints you’ll often find me helping my two year old son tend to the tomatoes, salad and peppers growing in our upcycled greenhouse.