Refrigeration is an example of how targeted energy-efficiency research can produce remarkable results: A reduction by three-fourths in the energy consumed by household refrigerators during the past 40 years.
In 1974, the average consumption per refrigerator was 1,800 kilowatt hours per year (kWh/yr) and average sizes were increasing as well. At that point, a joint government–industry research and development initiative began investigating more efficient compressors,* as well as improvements in design, motors, insulation, and other features.
The effort began to pay off almost immediately, largely as a result of low-cost measures that increased compressor efficiency by 44% in less than one decade. By the early 1980s, electricity consumption per refrigerator dropped by one-third and new developments kept coming. By 1990, average energy consumption dropped to 916 kWh/yr—about half of what it was only 15 years earlier. Today, the average is 450 kWh/yr.
Design enhancements and tighter government standards since 1990 have saved the nation billions of dollars in total electricity costs for home refrigerators.
Even the changeover from ozone-threatening chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant fluids (better known as CFCs) starting in 1989 did not impede progress. Further design enhancements and tighter government standards since 1990 have saved the nation billions of dollars in total electricity costs for home refrigerators during the entire life of the appliance.
Some of that benefit has been offset by an increase in the use of multiple refrigerators in homes and businesses, a common market response when new technologies reduce energy consumption and therefore costs. But that does not diminish the value of the remarkable improvements in efficiency for this appliance. And that trend may continue: Projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicate that, given widespread adoption of the best available technologies, nationwide average efficiency gains in refrigeration could increase nearly 80% from current levels.
* In general, refrigerators work by running a fluid (the refrigerant) through channels in the storage area and absorbing heat from the refrigerator contents. The fluid is then compressed, which heats it further. The warm fluid releases that heat to the environment and then is allowed to expand, which reduces its temperature to restart the cycle.
- Real Prospects for Energy Efficiency in the United States (2010)
- Overview and Summary of America’s Energy Future: Technology and Transformation (2010)
- Effect of U.S. Tax Policy on Greenhouse Gas Emissions (2013)
- Energy-Efficiency Standards and Green Building Certification Systems Used by the Department of Defense for Military Construction and Major Renovations (2013)