Discover more from Eat More Electrons
Why ‘The Fridge’ Continues to Resonate
Everyone’s favorite family appliance has become an enduring illustration of global energy inequality
Ever notice the yellow Energy Star tags on all appliances sold in the US?
The Energy for Growth Hub, the nonprofit I started, was born out of one of these tags that caught my eye during a shopping trip to buy a new refrigerator in 2013. For the first time ever, I read the tag and was immediately struck that my new fridge would use 459 kWh per year. Normally, I would’ve ignored this abstract number, but I just happened to have been messing around with energy data that morning and realized – 💡moment! – that my family fridge would use more electricity than most people in Africa.
So I made this little graphic, comparing per capita consumption in the six countries initially included in the US Power Africa initiative, which President Obama had launched just a few weeks earlier, and posted it on the Center for Global Development’s blog.
That simple graphic clearly struck a nerve. It has been reposted many times over the next ten years, initially by Ezra Klein in the Washington Post, then Brad Plumer in Vox, by USA Today, and Bill Gates on twitter.
Nearly a decade later, I'm delighted that The Fridge is still being cited and recreated by the Economist, Vox, and Foreign Policy, and going viral again. (I’m less delighted that some have copied it without attribution. I know, imitation, sincere flattery, and all that...) Even Greta Thunberg invoked the fridge vs people contrast recently in the Guardian.
But why do people keep coming back to The Fridge? (After all, it’s been a decade since I bought that new refrigerator.) And what do I think they should take away from it? I’ve got some strong views on both.
We ♥️ Our Fridge
First, refrigerators (like TVs and, now, smartphones) are often core to our identities. They invoke so much good: family, modernity, and how food is central to our lives and so often our culture. In my family, The Fridge is the center of our home.
And because fridges seem so benign, the notion that this machine humming away in our kitchens consumes more electricity than an entire person is deeply jarring. It seems to be the rare image that perfectly and indelibly illustrates an underlying global problem. As Ezra Klein’s headline explained:
Second, that headline is still bang-on relevant ten years later because the problem is still with us. We’re still not thinking big enough about solutions to energy poverty, which impacts 3 billion people worldwide. That’s been the focus of Klein, Plumer, Gates and others when they’ve cited The Fridge.
The Fridge is Not An Austerity Graphic
But some people take away a different message – one of guilt or anger about the West’s energy consumption. Let me explain why I think this self-centered message – expressed in two reactions I sometimes hear – is definitely not the point of The Fridge:
“American refrigerators are too big!” Yes, sure, 459 kWh is for a fairly large (~20 cubic foot capacity) fridge, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary for a family of five living outside Washington DC. A topline SubZero can run over 800 kWh per year, while a little (~3 cubic foot) minifridge could be closer to 200 kWh. But how will cutting the size of your refrigerator solve energy poverty for 3 billion other people?
“The rich world needs to cut energy use!” isn’t the point either. Thunberg, for example, set up the fridge comparison by bemoaning Western consumption:
If everyone lived like we do in Sweden, we would need the resources of 4.2 planet Earths to sustain us…. The fact that 3 billion people use less energy, on an annual per capita basis, than a standard American refrigerator gives you an idea of how far away from global equity and climate justice we currently are.
Again, not the point (and probably incorrect*). Sure, some rich people waste energy and there are many ways we could all be more energy efficient. But if decarbonization requires entire societies to Electrify Everything, then we’re going to need a lot more reliable electricity to replace fossil fuels for electric heating, electric vehicles, for data processing, and a whole lot more. A campaign of energy austerity in Sweden or America is very unlikely to work and – given the ongoing decoupling of energy from carbon emissions – is probably not even necessary. Even if electricity use in the rich world somehow shrank, it wouldn’t benefit the world’s energy poor one whit. The path to global equity and climate justice isn’t by making everyone an Energy Have-Not.
Instead, here are the lessons I hope people continue to take away from The Fridge.
People need a lot of energy to live a modern life. Yes, a refrigerator requires energy, and so too do all the other things about modern life: cooking, computing, television, video games, data, and, increasingly in a warming world, air conditioning. We should be aiming to get everyone to at least 1,000 kWh per person per year in the near-term, and eventually get everyone to 5,000 or even 10,000 kwh. (Here’s a short video to explain why.)
People need reliable energy too. When the power goes out for a long time, the first thing many people do is empty their fridge and throw away all the lost food. When the power goes out in my house, it’s total panic. When outages become an everyday occurrence for business – as in South Africa today – it’s an economic disaster.
Everyone deserves to take electricity for granted. A world of Energy Haves and Energy Have-nots is also just wrong. We cannot possibly be serious about global energy security or climate justice if an everyday kitchen appliance uses more energy than a whole person. But energy security and climate justice rely on well-paying jobs, living a full life, and building resilience to climate change – all of which require reliable abundant energy, especially electricity, for everyone.
The Fridge is not an austerity graphic. It’s a missed opportunity graphic.
It’s not about us cutting back – it’s about everyone else missing that opportunity of energy abundance. If Nigeria, Liberia, Senegal, Haiti, Nepal, and every other under-the-fridge energy country reaches Sweden’s per capita consumption levels, that wouldn’t be a nightmare. That would be a massive success.
*I have no idea where Thunberg got the stat that 3 billion people use less than a fridge and the Guardian doesn’t supply a link to the source of her claim. At the Energy for Growth Hub, my colleagues and I estimate that more than 3 bn people live in a country where the per capita average is less than 1,000 kWh and also that 3.5 bn lack reliable power, but I don’t know of any data that supports her specific claim. Maybe she conflated our fridge stat with the other estimates?