How to Tell If Your House is Being Haunted (by Phantom Power Loads)

A ghost cooking in a spooky cozy Halloween kitchen

A chill is in the air, as spooky season brings stories of wily witches, ghouls, and goblins. But as you switch on your heater and prepare for the cold months ahead, there is yet another fright to keep your sight set on: energy vampires. Sucking electricity from the grid (and money from your pocketbook), everyday appliances are haunting your home.

Energy vampires are appliances that continue to use power while plugged in (called phantom power loads), even when turned off or not in use. That’s pretty scary, considering how many appliances the average American leaves plugged in! A 2015 study by the Natural Resource Defense Council found that the average home in California had 65 devices plugged in at any given time, with the resulting phantom power loss making up about 23% of annual energy consumption for households in that state. Curious to know how much you might be spending to feed these suckers? Check out Duke Energy’s Energy Vampire Calculator. This wasted energy can make a big difference for the over 45 million U.S. households with high- or severe energy burden (meaning folks who are spending over 6% or 10% of their income, respectively, on energy bills).

The burden of these energy costs is not evenly spread. A 2023 policy brief by Professor Diana Hernández titled “Energy Insecurity and Health: America’s Hidden Hardship” reports that 25-33% of U.S. households experience energy insecurity (meaning inability to meet their energy needs), which is linked to numerous adverse health outcomes. Some protections exist for certain populations, like the elderly, but low-income households, renters, households with children, and households with members who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color remain disproportionately at risk.

The U.S. Department of Energy notes that there are steps consumers can take to cut down on their energy bills by reducing phantom power loss—including regularly unplugging devices, using timed power switches, and buying ENERGY STAR-rated appliances. Still, stronger energy efficiency policy is needed. Professor Hernández reports that federal policy aimed at assisting low- and moderate-income households in improving energy efficiency (the Weatherization Assistance Program) has had limited success, but points to positive policy trends, noting that the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—which provides funding to state energy offices for various building energy efficiency programs—prioritizes energy efficiency incentives for low- and moderate-income LMI households.

The IRA’s equity focus is crucial as, according to a report by Just Solutions Collective on “Energy Burden & the Clean Energy Transition,” one key challenge to addressing energy burden in the clean energy transition is lack of funding available for upfront costs of energy efficiency improvements for low- and moderate-income households. Just Solutions Collective notes that states can help reduce energy burden by taking actions to make buildings more efficient, while ensuring that costs for those improvements aren’t shifted to tenants. At the state level, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy recommends that state decision makers (including utility commissioners, state energy offices, and policymakers) prioritize robust community engagement; utilize environmental justice screening and mapping tools; make clear and concrete commitments to the public using understandable metrics; monitor costs and benefits, especially those impacting low-income communities; and more, to make energy efficiency programming more equitable.

With millions of Americans already facing high energy burden and insecurity, phantom power loss from energy vampires is a real fright. State action on energy efficiency has the potential to substantially benefit both the climate and consumers. In 2023 so far, over a dozen states have enacted bills to track or advance residential energy efficiency, many with provisions to ensure that low- and moderate-income households benefit from the initiatives. Funding opportunities under the IRA will likely accelerate such efforts. The number of state actions is almost dizzying. See below for a roundup of all of that recent state legislation advancing energy efficiency.

2023 State Legislation Advancing Energy Efficiency

  • In California, amendments to the Building Energy Savings Act clarified that the utilities that serve buildings, not small building owners, must collect energy usage data. The Act charged the Energy Commission with making a plan to use this data to achieve GHG emissions reductions targets for the building sector. California also clarified that its building energy efficiency standards apply to sealed and unvented attics. Additionally, a new law included energy efficiency safeguards and expanded incentives for solar energy systems on low-income, multifamily buildings. It tasked the Public Utilities Commission with establishing energy efficiency requirements under the Multifamily Affordable Housing Solar Roofs Program and developing local hiring requirements for solar projects on these buildings. Finally, legislation was enacted to assure accountability for California’s Equitable Building Decarbonization Program, which, among other things, funds projects that increase buildings’ energy efficiency to protect against extreme heat.