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Americans are more energy efficient than you might think. And you may also be surprised to learn that we can do even better with some innovative thinking and by controlling hidden power users.

Electricity touches our lives nearly every minute of every day, making up about 5% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). So, it makes sense to use it wisely, whether you're concerned about how it affects the environment or you want to save money – or both.

Here are three surprising facts about energy efficiency that can help you make the best use of your electricity.

Proof of efficiency

A little-known way of measuring efficiency performance is with a statistic called the “energy intensity index.” It shows how much energy it takes to produce a dollar of the economy’s GDP. Another term that’s been used for that idea is “energy productivity.”

Whichever term you use, the indexes show that Americans are getting better at creating more economic activity with less energy – energy intensity is down and productivity is up. Way up.

The numbers show that energy intensity is about half what it was 30 years ago. That’s because we’re making strides in a range of ways, from building codes to light bulbs to motor vehicle mileage. And these improvements are expected to continue. The Department of Energy projects energy intensity will decline by 30% over the next 30 years.

Out with the old, in with the new

The old phrase “you have to spend money to make money” is catchy because, at first, it sounds like it doesn’t make sense. But when it comes to appliances that consume a lot of energy, it can make dollars and sense.

From dishwashers to computers, energy efficiency is improving dramatically every year as technology, federal rules and plain old competition give you a better bang for your buck. In fact, if your refrigerator or dishwasher is more than 10 years old, the money you can save on energy use for a new appliance could pay for itself in just a few years.

The yellow Energy Guide labels found on products at your appliance store will tell you how much you can save with a new purchase. Another way to compare the old to the new is to search “flip your fridge” on Google or another online search engine. It will take you to an ENERGY STAR® calculator that will compare the energy use of your current appliances to what’s available in stores.

Slaying vampires

Did you know you could be spending $100 to $400 a year on energy you don’t even need? That frightening fact even comes with scary names–phantom power or vampire electronics. It’s the TV and video game console that draw power so they’re ready to turn on instantly. It’s the digital clocks. It’s the computers and phones plugged in even though they’re fully charged.

Getting rid of phantom power can be tricky. You probably don’t want to regularly shut off your wireless router or constantly reboot your smart TV. But you can plug several devices into a power strip and turn them off when they are not being used. Or smart power strips are available that will do that for you. When you’re shopping for new electronics and appliances, look for the latest ENERGY STAR®-rated models that take vampire loads into account. It is also worthwhile to take a notepad through each room of your home and list anything that’s plugged in. This helps you figure out which energy users you might be able to control without causing too much inconvenience.

Phantom power costs do add up, but it’s also true that your home has much bigger energy users. If you’re concerned about energy costs, ensure your heating and cooling system is up to date and working efficiently, and your windows and doors aren’t leaking air.

Your electric co-op can advise you on the most effective steps for energy savings. After all, they’re your local leading authority on home energy use. And that’s no surprise.

Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives.

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