Despite what you may have learned as a child, sloth isn’t always a sin. A new study in the journal Joule suggests that the spread of technologies enabling Americans to spend more time working remotely, shopping online — and, yes, watching Netflix and chilling — has a side benefit of reducing energy use, and, by extension, greenhouse gas emissions.
But the findings also highlight how tricky it can be to estimate how Americans’ changing lifestyles affect the way we use energy.
Researchers found that, on average, Americans spent 7.8 more days at home in 2012, compared to 2003. They calculated that this reduced national energy demand by 1,700 trillion BTUs in 2012, or 1.8 percent of the nation’s total energy use.
The lifestyle shift was especially pronounced among 18- to 24-year-olds, who spent an extra 14 days at home and roughly four days less in travel. The findings represent a significant change in lifestyle in less than 10 years. Those fewer travel days are particularly important when it comes to saving energy.
“Energy intensity when you’re traveling is actually 20 times per minute than when spent at home,” said Ashok Sekar, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin and lead author on the story.
One of his co-authors, Eric Williams, an associate professor of sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology, made the point a different way. “This is a little tongue in cheek, but you know in ‘The Matrix’ everyone lives in those little pods? For energy, that’s great,” he said, because living in little pods would be pretty efficient. “In the Jetsons, where everyone is running around in their jet cars, that’s terrible for energy.”
But not everyone is persuaded by the study’s conclusion, and not just because living in a pod isn’t particularly appealing. The researchers reached their conclusions by analyzing data from The American Time Use Survey, which as its title suggests measures how Americans spend their time. It is how we know, for example, that American women spend more time engaging in most forms of housework than their male counterparts.
According to Bob Simon, a former staff director for the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, at least one problem is that the time use survey participants record only their primary activity within a given time span. If, for example, a participant is cooking and watching television at the same time, only the cooking activity is recorded. Or, if a participant is running errands (such as hitting the grocery store), over the course of their commute to work, that change in behavior isn’t recorded in the time use survey either.
But, according to Dr. Simon, that’s exactly what’s happening. “One of the things that’s changed is how people commute back and forth to work over the last decade or so,” he said, referencing a Department of Transportation report on commuting in the United States. “They’re adding more trips to their commute. They’re stopping to pick something up.” Fewer individual trips may be contributing to fewer miles driven.
Similarly, according to Dr. Simon, who wasn’t involved in the study, the research doesn’t capture the effects of the changing ways that Americans work. For example, the study suggests that workers are spending less time at work because faster and better online services make it easier for us to work from home. As a result, we’re spending less time in office buildings, which use more energy than our homes, and employers are consolidating office space.
But the increasing time Americans spend working from home may not actually be attributable to greater ease of telecommuting. Rather, because the study averages behaviors, it might be because some Americans are actually putting in more hours — heading home from the office and putting in a second shift made possible only because of technology’s creeping reach.
In addition, between 2003 and 2012 the number of part-time workers in the United States almost doubled, from 4.6 million part time workers to 8.3 million, many of whom are involuntarily part-time workers. “The number of people who are spending time at work is going to go down because you’re sort of swapping out a full-time worker for a part-time worker,” said Dr. Simon. That may be good for energy use, but not necessarily so great for the employee’s wallet.
The study’s researchers say that while the reasons underlying the changes aren’t definitive, they are confident in the overall reduction. For whatever reason, they say, Americans are staying at home more, and that’s translating to reduced energy use.
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