Differences in Energy Use
Over the years, I learned a little about how Europeans use roughly half of the energy, per person, as we Americans do. This is true even though most buildings in Europe have no insulation! I lived in Prague, in the Czech Republic, between 2003 and 2006, and I learned a lot about energy conservation while I was there. The reasons for lower consumption there include: less lights, smaller appliances, public transportation, no air conditioning, and lower expectations of comfort.
Energy Conservation through Transportation
Public transport riders include women with strollers, trades people carrying tools, small children riding unaccompanied, and elderly persons carrying shopping bags. Younger riders jump up to give their seats to older riders and riders hurry to the assistance of anyone needing help getting on or off.
Reducing Comfort Expectations
The old skating rink, Stvanice, where I played ice hockey probably uses one-half of the energy of American rinks. The lighting level is low, provided by a few large metal halide lights in a very large building. The building is unheated and water for showers is heated to maybe 90 degrees F. Showers usually feature screaming and jumping up and down to stay warm. Locker rooms were small, heated only by the body heat from the players. This level of comfort drew few complaints because it meets the expectations of the people.
When German building scientist York Ostermeyer was visiting Japan to help with their fledgling, passive-house effort, he found the Japanese comfort expectations were quite low compared to the Germans. He kept hearing that Japanese homes are hot in the summer and cold in the winter. But he had a difficult time getting an opinion about whether comfort was acceptable or not. Finally someone informed him that indoor temperature fluctuation was the natural order of things. Indoor temperatures vary widely with the seasons and people stay healthy by adapting to their climates.
North Americans have high expectations of comfort and comparative luxury. The resulting cost to us and our environment isn’t sustainable for the long term. Reducing our expectations will be difficult. However I believe we can eventually frame this change as healthy and necessary. The more we are able to change our mindset about comfort level, the better at energy conservation we will become.