Sick of $450-a-month gas and electric bills for their Baltimore County rowhouse, James and JoAnn Allis replaced their old, inefficient air conditioner. And their windows and doors. Then they added insulation in their home's many leaky spots and coated their roof to keep the house cooler in the summer.
Now the retirees pay about $220 a month.
"That's a big difference," said JoAnn Allis, flipping through recent Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. bills. "We had to do it in spurts, but ... gradually one thing leads to another that all brings your bill down."
They're not the only ones needing less energy. BGE says per-customer electricity use was about 10 percent lower last year than in 2005, despite the proliferation of power-sapping smartphones, digital video recorders and other electronics. Highly efficient appliances, light bulbs and other products — both residential and commercial — are helping reduce consumption.
The recession suppressed electricity demand, too. But that's not the major story, BGE says.
"There was a reduction in part due to the economy," said Ruth Kiselewich, BGE's manager of energy-efficiency portfolios. "But ... the vast majority of that reduction was due to energy efficiency."
BGE customers collectively save nearly 1.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year through incentive programs that cover part of improvement costs, Kiselewich said. To put that figure into perspective: It's enough energy to power 156,000 homes for a year, she said, or the equivalent of a year's worth of greenhouse-gas emissions from 230,000 cars.
Statewide, electricity use at the start of this summer was slightly lower than a decade ago. That's total, not per-customer, over a period in which population increased about 8 percent.
"We have seen a continually rising interest in energy-efficiency improvements," said Peter Van Buren, president of TerraLogos Energy Group, a Baltimore home- and building-performance firm founded in 2006. "People are starting to see the benefits. ... So often in the past, people have felt that their home is cold, their bills are high and there's really nothing they can do about it."
TerraLogos focuses on projects such as improving insulation and duct sealing, projects for customers trying to lower energy use. Some people, though, cut back without even realizing it.
Replace a refrigerator from 1990 with one made last year, and you'll use half the energy, says the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. Same with a dishwasher. A new clothes washer uses about 75 percent less energy — and it's bigger than 1990 versions.
Those are the improvement averages, not just for higher-efficiency appliances that qualify for the federal government's Energy Star label. An Energy Star refrigerator, for instance, costs about $50 a year to run compared with about $130 for a 1990s refrigerator, according to Environmental Protection Agency calculations.
Furnaces, heat pumps and air-conditioning units also are far more efficient than they used to be, said Bill McNary, a survey statistician who focuses on residential energy consumption for the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
But not everything is pushing use downward. The counterbalancing forces are electronics — more computers, more televisions, more products that didn't even exist a decade or two ago — and larger homes. The average U.S. house built last year is 20 percent bigger than one built in 1990, which means more space to heat and cool.
The result: Energy use per residence has edged mostly downward nationwide for years, but not dramatically so, according to the Energy Information Administration. The average U.S. home consumed about 3 percent less energy in 2009 than in 2001, according to recent surveys by the agency.
"For every gain in efficiency, it seems like a lot is being offset by the introduction of new products," McNary said. But he zeroed in on the upside: "Think how bad it would be if it wasn't for efficiency."
Maryland is one of the more aggressive states in lowering energy consumption. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranked Maryland's efforts ninth nationwide in its most recent score card, based on the state's EmPOWER Maryland program.
That initiative, passed by the General Assembly in 2008, set a goal of reducing per-capita electricity use through 2015 by 15 percent. Utilities are required to help meet the target by offering incentives for customers to buy high-efficiency appliances, conduct home energy audits and the like. Companies also can qualify for assistance.
Maryland's Public Service Commission said the amount of energy saved through utility programs beat the forecast last year. But the agency said the programs got a slow start in earlier years and will fall short of 2015 goals without changes. The commission said in April that it asked utilities and others to propose "program enhancements."
Everyone pays for the EmPOWER incentives. BGE's residential customers see a surcharge of about $1.60 a month on average.