Sunday, January 25, 2009

An International Perspective on Residential Energy Consumption

Over the winter break, I traveled to South America to visit my relatives in Colombia for three weeks. Though I have visited many times, I am always stunned by the differences between life in developing world and the extravagance I enjoy as a middleclass American. Colombia has the 28th largest economy in the world according to the IMF, but its population is so large that it ranks 82nd in GDP per capita, which is roughly at median of all the world’s countries.

My perspective of Colombia is naturally limited because my aunts and uncles are fortunate to be either a part of the wealthy upper-class or the growing middle-class. However, the comforts they enjoy are markedly different from what is often taken for granted in the US. While it is impossible to explain all of the differences in this short post, I would briefly like to compare our household energy consumption. Comparing households is difficult because it energy usage depends on a variety of factors including the number of people, the size of the house, and the prevailing climate, so I will try my best to present all the relevant data.

Table 1: Comparison of Apartments in Warm Climates
Although my grandmother’s apartment in Barranquilla is much larger than my own apartment in Austin, she uses less electricity because she does not have central air-conditioning. Instead, she has a wall unit in every room and only runs the air-conditioning when she is in a room. If she is cooking or cleaning, the windows are always open and the apartment was designed to maximize air flowing through the windows. In contrast, central air-conditioning maintains my apartment in Austin at a constant temperature throughout the day. Considering my grandmother also has a washer and dryer in her apartment and I use the laundromat in Austin, she consumes significantly less electricity overall.

Table 2: Comparison of Family Households in Mild Climates

My dad has a brother and a sister living in Bogota who each has a family with three children. As Table 2 shows, their families use significantly less energy than my family in Houston. Although Bogota has cold nights, neither apartment has any form of heating unlike my family’s home in Houston. One family uses a significant amount of gas to heat their hot water heater and dryer. The other family uses approximately 8 ccf equivalent because they do not have natural gas tubing and rely on a propane tank to power the stove and electricity to heat the bath water. They also do not have a dryer, so they must wait two days for their clothes to dry.

Some relevant facts worth noting is that there is little variation between the electricity consumption from month-to-month in Colombia because the weather remains more-or-less constant given its proximity to the equator. In contrast, my family’s electric bill in Houston varies between 1400 and 600 kwh, while our gas consumption varies between 1 and 88 ccf depending on the season. According to the EIA, the average monthly household electricity consumption in the US is 936 kwh, which far exceeds the consumption of my middle to upper-class Colombian relatives. The average per-capita electricity consumption in Colombia is 828 kwh per year according to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, and this average includes electricity consumed across the industrial, commercial, and residential sectors.

This data is only a narrow snapshot of differences in energy consumption, but it gives me a greater appreciation for the amount of energy my family consumes in the US. I want to conclude by mentioning that in my four trips to Colombia over the past five years, I have seen many signs of remarkable growth and improvement. Colombia is only one of many rapidly developing countries that are aspiring to enjoy our standard of living, and a comprehensive strategy will have to be developed to supply this growing demand.

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