Life During the Decline of Oil

What is happening in this crazy world? We pay almost $100 to fill our gas tanks and thousands of dollars to heat our homes. Food prices are increasing at alarming rates, and there have even been rice shortages in Asia. People of all walks of life are affected, with the middle class being pushed closer to the poverty line.

What is causing this abrupt change in world economics? One word: oil.

In 1949, Dr. M. King Hubbert predicted that the era of fossil fuels would be short-lived. In 1956, he calculated that the United States’ oil supply output would peak in the 1970s. His predictions, unfortunately, were accurate—domestic oil production has steadily dropped from a peak of close to ten million barrels per day (MBPD) in 1970 down to approximately five million today.

Country after country has succumbed to the inevitability of "peak oil." The United Kingdom peaked in 1999. Mexico, Brazil, and China peaked in the last decade. Yet the world keeps increasing its consumption, our economies dependent upon more than 85 million barrels of oil every day, with the United States responsible for consuming 25 percent of the entire world oil output.

In 2007 and 2008, the world experienced oil shocks, driving prices up to historic levels. The growing economies of China and India have led to an increase in consumption, as their populaces now desire the standard of living that people in the United States have enjoyed for decades. Cars, televisions, air conditioners, and refrigerators: the comforts we take for granted are enjoyed by a small fraction of the population in developing nations. As their wealth increases, they join us in profligate energy use.

Combined with a stagnant oil production capacity, the world now runs at an oil deficit. That is, we use more oil than we take out of the ground. According to the British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy in 2008, total petroleum consumption was 85.1 MBPD while oil production dropped to 81.5 MBPD. It further reports that oil demand has exceeded production since 1997. This is unsustainable: we must reduce our energy use and find alternative energy sources.

The Path to Energy Independence

Today’s problems are the result of our cumulative actions. As a society, we take it for granted that the lights will come on when we flip a switch; that our house will warm up when we turn up the thermostat; that our food will stay cold in our refrigerator; and that any time we want anything, we can get into our car and drive to the local store.

Each of these luxuries requires energy. With 300 million people living in the United States in over 100 million households, even the smallest uses, multiplied by numbers this large, add up to tremendous energy consumption.

For example, a humble electric clock-radio that draws ten watts in every household requires a one-gigawatt (one billion watts) power plant! One gallon of gas every day, for each household, consumes 5 million barrels of oil per day. Seemingly trivial choices make a difference when accumulated across the population of an entire nation.

All of us are responsible for the energy consumption of our country. Therefore, each of us needs to reduce personal consumption in order to help make a difference. One light bulb? Ten coal-fired power plants. Ten gallons of gas saved per year? Fifty-two million barrels of oil. We can practice conscious consumption, understanding that every choice is meaningful.

Conserving Energy in Our Own Homes

As an energy efficiency consultant, I work with homeowners and small businesses to reduce their utility bills. While my suggestions vary depending upon the specifics of the home in question, they fall into a small number of categories that are easily applied to many homes.

The first step is an energy audit. At the simplest level, this involves reviewing utility bills in order to observe usage patterns. This simple step reveals a great deal about a home and its occupants.

For example, my local utility, PECO, provides a gas bill that includes a yearly summary graph such as the one shown here. This example shows a typical usage pattern—high consumption in the winter and very low consumption in the summer.

The winter use is for space heating, while the summer use shows "baseline" usage for other things such as cooking and water heating. A quick glance shows whether there is a serious consumption problem. For example, if the summer usage was high, it might indicate a leak or a problem with the water heater.

Reviewing the electric bill is also telling. For example, the graph of this bill shows an extremely high winter electric usage—three to six times the normal summer consumption, which is normally high due to air conditioner use. Why did this happen?

The house in this example uses an electric heat pump. These heat the home very efficiently with electricity, so it was surprising to see such a high usage. After some investigation, we determined that the heat pump was configured to use the emergency backup heat any time the temperature dropped below 40 degrees. In eastern Pennsylvania, much of the winter is below this temperature, so the emergency heat was running almost constantly. Simply changing the heat pump configuration to lock out emergency heat until the temperature is below 30 degrees could reduce winter heating bills by half!

The electric bill also helps one determine if there are unusual power draws wasting electricity. A useful exercise is to compare your average daily usage to typical values. The table below provides some reference figures.

Item Usage in Kilowatt hours
Total household electric usage 15-30 kwh per day
Air conditioner / heat pump 3-5 kwh per hour of use
Electric space heater 1-2 kwh per hour of use
Electric water heater 5-10 kwh per day
Lighting (Ten 75w bulbs, 12 hours per day) 9 kwh per day
1.5 HP pool / spa pump, 12 hours per day 18 kwh per day

During the summer, when air conditioning use is high, it is common to see daily usage skyrocket from 25 kwh up to 75 kwh. Likewise, if you have a pool, running the pump 12 hours per day increases your consumption substantially. In this example, it is increased by 50 to 100 percent.

Reviewing heating bills also shows how efficient a home is compared to others. This simple process computes how much energy is required to heat the home per square foot, adjusting for the temperatures experienced during the billing period.

Another critical part of a home energy audit is the blower door infiltration test. Using a large fan mounted in a doorway, the air in the house is blown out, causing air to enter wherever there is a leak. When combined with an infrared scan, this test pinpoints leakage throughout the home and provides a quantitative measure of the amount of air infiltration.

An infrared picture called a "thermogram" represents temperatures as colors or shades. The darker the image, the colder the surface. For example, the corner of a window might exhibit considerable cold air leaking in, or dark streaks show where the wind blows in, cooling the window.

In addition, the thermogram clearly shows areas missing insulation. Such areas are important because they cause a disproportionate amount of energy loss compared with a properly insulated area. This is especially important in ceilings separating the living space from a hot attic. A single patch of missing insulation can lose as much energy as an entire ceiling that is properly insulated.

Sealing air leaks and ensuring adequate, uniformly installed insulation are two primary areas for energy conservation in any home. Savings of 20 percent on heating and cooling costs are attainable for many homes. For more details, see the Energy Star website.


As noted in the table above, lighting is responsible for a significant portion of one’s energy consumption. Ideally, one would replace all incandescent lights in the home with high efficiency electronic or fluorescent lamps. However, in some cases, this is neither practical nor cost-effective. There are some areas ideally suited for lighting upgrades. Outdoor lighting, especially floodlights left on for many hours per night, each cost about $50 per year to run, while the fluorescent equivalent costs only $15 for the same amount of usage and light output. Adding timers to minimize the amount of time the lights are on reduces consumption further. Note that fluorescent bulbs are not appropriate for fixtures using motion sensors because of their long warm-up time and diminished lifetime when switched on and off frequently.

Children’s playrooms represent another excellent use of fluorescent lights. These lights are often left on all day, consuming hundreds of watts every day. It is reasonable to expect such lighting to be responsible for 10 to 20 percent of your entire electric bill. In several cases, I have seen electric usage reduced to less than half by replacing high-use lights with fluorescents. Small changes can add up to big reductions.

Heating and Cooling

The United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) lists heating, ventilation, and cooling as the largest consumers of energy in most households, representing 31 percent of all household electric use in 2001. In the northeast United States, where much of the heating is provided by oil, the cost of heating one’s home has increased by over 100 percent in the last two years. Clearly, heating and cooling represent great opportunities for energy savings.

A recent study conducted by Kevin Deeny, director of Virescent Communities of Levittown, Pennsylvania, showed that the total energy use of a 1950s home was reduced by over 40 percent through the implementation of insulation, air sealing, and window/door improvements combined with high efficiency lighting replacements. An additional 20 percent was saved on the total energy use by replacing the existing oil-burning boiler with an efficient heat pump. Such savings prove that existing housing stock can be improved profoundly.

With current oil prices, the economics of switching from oil and propane to other forms of heating are becoming increasingly favorable. For example, at $4.85 per gallon, a home now using 750 gallons of heating oil in eastern Pennsylvania costs $3,638 to heat. That same home, heated with an efficient electric heat pump, costs $750 to heat. This drops to $440 with a geothermal heat pump. Oil and propane are no longer financially viable sources of energy for home heating.

Long overlooked, heat pumps have evolved considerably in the last decade. When sized and installed appropriately, a heat pump supplies comfortable and extremely efficient heating and cooling for homes. There is even a heat pump designed for cold climates, which operates well below freezing without any auxiliary heating system. Such advances allow virtually any home to replace fossil-fuel-burning heaters with clean, efficient heat pumps.

The Future

We have seen the peak of the fossil fuel era and are now suffering the consequences of our overdependence on this nonrenewable energy source. Increasing the efficiency of our homes and vehicles will greatly reduce the impact of high oil prices. But efficiency and conservation are only one step in the right direction. Going forward, we must shift the way we think about our energy use and do things differently.

There are millennia-old building methods that reduce the heating and cooling loads of homes to negligible levels. Through passive solar design, appropriate placement, and natural ventilation, we can produce homes that are extremely energy efficient, filled with natural light, and healthier to occupy. With the addition of modern technology, we need give up none of our standard of living.

While many resist change, the current energy and environmental crisis represent tremendous opportunities. Financial pressures force change upon those who would otherwise keep us heading down a self-destructive path. Nations are now motivated to develop renewable, nonpolluting energy sources—ones that will be with us as long as the wind blows and the sun shines. We stand at the threshold of a great era: a time when we think for the long term and live for future generations as well as ourselves; a time when we finally understand that we cannot keep taking from the land, but instead must live in harmony with it.

Ted Inoue

Ted Inoué, who lives in New Hope, Pa., is a Certified Sustainable Building Advisor working as an energy efficiency consultant. He is a founding member of Virescent Communities, a nonprofit organization that is creating a blueprint for the national reduction of the carbon footprint of existing homes. When not analyzing houses, Ted enjoys riding his bicycle around the farmland of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.