When I picked up a gallon of milk at the store today, I looked at it in a new way. I was buying energy.

This insight came courtesy of the US Energy Information Administration‘s recent ‘Today in Energy’ article about industrial energy consumption.

It turns out that we use about 30 percent of our energy for industrial processes, according to the federal agency. But it’s hard for most of us to grasp where all that energy goes. As EIA points out, it sounds “remote.” Factories somewhere are churning out fabricated metals, bulk chemicals and other product categories that don’t remind me of my own life. To bring it home, EIA walks us down the supermarket aisle to explain how all of this manufacturing and energy use translates into our everyday existence. The products we buy equal energy used. There is a power plant behind every gallon of milk.

Petroleum and bulk chemicals are among our most energy-intensive industries. Think floor wax, detergent and, of course, that plastic container the milk came in. In fact, product packaging really keeps our power plants and refineries chugging. Energy intensive products include cans for food and drinks, paper boxes for items like breakfast cereal (that breathtakingly long aisle), glass jars, and plastic containers, boxes and wrappings, says EIA.

Here is a more detailed breakdown provided by EIA.

How else do we use our energy? Households consume about 20 percent, commercial enterprise about 18 percent and transportation roughly 30 percent. Of course, energy use is down because of the economic malaise of the last few years, as the illustration below shows. (It focuses on industrial processes.)

This represents the kind of energy savings few of us want, a decline caused because we are buying fewer things off that hypothetical supermarket shelf, a sign of waning economic prosperity.

But it’s not all bad news. It turns out that the US also has been achieving the good kind of energy savings, the kind gained deliberately through efficiency, better technology and effective energy policy, savings derived almost invisibly, without consumer sacrifice or discomfort, as energy efficiency advocates like to say.

We are becoming more efficient for many reasons. But one driver is a state policy known as the energy efficiency resource standard, says EIA in a separate analysis. Also known as the EERS, these are energy savings targets or requirements set by certain states. Twenty-nine states now have some form of these standards. Some are aggressive; New York is trying to reduce its electric consumption 15 percent by 2015. Others are more narrow; Arkansas is focusing only on its state buildings with a goal to cut their energy 20 percent by 2014 and 30 percent by 2017. The programs vary state to state, but often utilities are held responsible for achieving the savings.

The policy seems to work. States with EERS consume less electricity per capita than those without the standards, says EIA. Congress has contemplated various federal EERS programs, but they’ve gone no further than contemplation so far.

To see if your state has an EERS, see the map below.

For more information on how we use and save energy see EIA’s article on industrial energy consumption and EIA’s EERS analysis.

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work can be found at RealEnergyWriters.com. Subscribe to her free Energy Efficiency Markets newsletter at http://www.realenergywriters.com/free-newsletter/

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Comment by CleanEdison on October 10, 2012 at 1:06pm

Awesome post Elisa.

It can be very easy to lose sight of the energy intensive nature of (almost) everything we do. Even as I type away on my computer I am reminded about the plastics, hardware and transportation involved to bring it to my desk (not to mention the energy to run it). 

I know we're making progress with home energy efficiency (check out my infographic about why this matters http://www.cleanedison.com/blog/wasted-energy-in-the-u-s-infographi...), but how do we tackle the energy intensity of our consumer products? I suppose corporate sustainability is the answer, but that is up to the whims of each company - not exactly a promising model.

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