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Your Laziness Is Saving the Planet

New research finds we're driving less in the Internet age, and that's reducing our energy consumption.

Couch potatoes of America, stand up and take a bow. You are helping the nation conserve energy.

That goes for you, too, telecommuters. As well as online shoppers, and any Millennial who chooses a night of Netflix over a night on the town.

A new analysis finds that, thanks to the Internet and other forms of electronic technology, Americans are spending more and more time at home. And that is significantly reducing demand for energy.

"The additional energy use at home is more than compensated for by savings in transport and non-commercial buildings," writes a research team led by Ashok Sekar of the University of Texas–Austin.

How much more? In the journal Joule (its name refers to a standard unit of energy), Sekar and his colleagues calculate the reduction in 2012 amounted to about 1.8 percent of national energy demand.

"We did expect to see net energy decrease, but we had no idea of the magnitude," he said in announcing the findings.

The study utilizes a decade's worth of data from the American Time Use Survey. It finds "Americans are spending considerably more time at home—7.8 days more in 2012 compared with 2003," the researchers write. "This increased home time is counterbalanced by decreased time spent traveling (1.2 days less in 2012 vs. 2003) and in non-residential buildings (6.7 days less)."

The reasons for this are clear: People are working more at home, watching videos rather than going to movies or live events, and increasingly shopping online rather than going to the mall.

While the shift was seen among all age groups except senior citizens (whose numbers are likely skewed by the fact more people are continuing to work beyond age 65), it was particularly dramatic for young adults. Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 spent, on average, 14 additional days at home in 2012 compared to 2003.

The researchers then analyzed trends in energy consumption in three arenas: residential buildings, commercial and public buildings, and transportation. They found that, "while energy use at home increased, this was accompanied by reduced driving—the most energy-intensive activity per minute—and operating fewer commercial buildings, primarily offices and retail outlets."

That closed mall may be an eyesore, but it isn't burning any fossil fuels.

The researchers offer some caveats. For one thing, they did not account for "the additional electricity consumption of data centers induced by residential demand for the Internet." Keeping all those servers cool and operating takes power.

This positive trend could slow as the Internet revolution matures. But Sekar and his colleagues add that it still has a long way to go, noting that "the increasing ownership and use of smart thermostats" will presumably make homes still more energy-efficient. Given that people are spending more time at home, "additional emphasis on improving the efficiency of consumer electronics and home appliances might be warranted," they write.

So if you just don't feel like leaving the house today—other than perhaps to go out for a run—don't feel guilty. As it turns out, your propensity for staying put is patriotic.