Bigger Houses Pull More Electricity for Cooling

The rise of McMansions is testing the ability of power grids to provide electricity for cooling during the summer heat. U.S. Census figures show that the interior space of new homes has expanded since 1980 from an average of 1,900 square feet to about 2,500.

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Here in California, we're just emerging from a heat wave that saw the hottest temperature ever recorded in Los Angeles County: 119 degrees in The Valley. That and the threat of rolling blackouts for almost two weeks straight.

So why is summer such a perennial test of the upper limits of power grids?

(Soundbite of power saw)

Part of the answer rests on new home construction. That often means McMansions: five, ten, even 20,000 square-foot houses with central air conditioning. Dan Kammen teaches energy issues at the University of California at Berkeley.

Mr. DAN KAMMEN (Energy Issues, University of California at Berkeley): California may be building the McMansions and the monster homes, but we're seeing this trend all over the place. And so, it does portend dramatic increases in supply we're going to need to produce.

MONTAGNE: U.S. census figures show 30 million new homes in the U.S. since 1980, with interior space expanding from an average 1,900 square feet to about 2,500. Naturally, people need to fill those houses with stuff. And Kim Hughes, of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, points out that stuff needs electricity.

Ms. KIM HUGHES (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power): We've added more devices, whether it's more computers, more TV sets - plasma TV sets pull a lot of energy.

MONTAGNE: And not just when they're on. UC Berkeley's Dan Kammen says that cell phone chargers, electric toothbrushes, X-Boxes, they all draw so-called vampire power.

Mr. KAMMEN: Ten percent of all electricity used in California goes into the standby mode - of sort of doing nothing, except for the remote sitting there and the TV saying, are you talking to me? Are you talking to me?

MONTAGNE: Dan Kammen isn't recommending everyone run around unplugging electronics. But he says that refrigerator in the garage that you only use on the fourth of July - pull the plug.

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