Energy efficiency and the annoying guy next door

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Elisa WoodBy Elisa Wood
May 4, 2011

Who would have thought backyards would cause so much trouble for the North American energy industry? First came the NIMBYs, the not-in-my-backyard protesters who block power projects from being built near them. And now we have the GIMBBYs – the give-me-a-bigger-backyard homeowners who are unwittingly getting in the way of energy efficiency.

GIMBBYs aren’t worried about seeing wind turbines or transmission lines from their backyards as are the NIMBYs. It’s the guy next store that they don’t want to see. And GIMBBYs number many among us. A recent study conducted for the National Association of Realtors found privacy to be very important in selecting a home for nearly half of the Americans surveyed.

What’s this got to with energy efficiency? To gain privacy we move to homes that are further from work, schools and stores, suburban and rural outposts that offer us bigger backyards. By way of disclosure, before I go any further let me confess that I am a GIMBBY. I’d probably give up my lights, heat and air conditioning before my five acres of trees shielding me from others.

The Environmental Protection Agency calls big-backyard neighborhoods like mine “automobile dependent locations” and contrasts them with “transit-oriented” neighborhoods, places where you can hop a bus or easily walk to regular destinations. The agency recently looked at which kind of neighborhood uses the most British Thermal Units (BTUs), taking into account size and type of house, its energy efficiency, and vehicle use of its occupants. This is known as Location Efficiency.

The EPA’s findings indicate that location really is everything. Transit-oriented neighborhoods offered up more energy savings whether the houses were single family detached, single family attached or multi-family. This is significant because homes that share walls typically require less energy for heating and cooling. But that advantage was not significant enough to overcome driving distance for the big-backyard neighborhoods. Travel requirements pretty much trumped all, indicating that a home’s location is “a major variable for household energy consumption,” the EPA said.
“The takeaway here is that a location-efficient future does not necessarily mean a world of only multifamily housing. Far from it, location efficiency can enable greater housing choices, access to services, and more transportation options,” said Eric Mackres, communities program manager for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in his blog.

So should all of us GIMBBYs pack up and move to the city? Clearly, that’s not going to happen. But our current housing development slump gives us time to reflect on how to design neighborhoods for the future. The graying of America is leading to an increasing number of childless households. And as the EPA study points out, these retirees often show a preference for “more walkable, vibrant urban places.” Demand will still exist for suburban homes with big backyards, but that demand is decreasing. So we may be entering a rare period when maximum energy efficiency and consumer desire go hand and hand.  We may not have to look far afield to achieve significant energy savings; the answer might be in our backyards.

Elisa Wood’s white paper, “Exporting US Energy Efficiency,” is available at

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. Greg Bush says:

    I’m in the bay area of California and commute through a vast array of various vintage windmills. Like a capacity of 1400 meggawatts on a breezy day. Couple of oddities. One group wants the operators license pulled as many rapters are killed by the blades each year so the windmills sit idle for many months while the birds “commute” through for the seasons. Some folks actually think they are a “cooling system” for the Burg I live in. Others build houses right in front of them and wonder why it is so windy all the time. LOL
    Cool thing is 2 very large ones have been recently commissioned and 1 is in acceptance test right now.



  2. Think back….did the author of “location inefficiency” share his methodology OR his data? Well I never saw it. It’s a well known fact among urban climatologists that urban environments are the biggest energy wasters of all human modified landscapes. Apartment buildings that turn up the boiler to satisfy the coldest room in an entire building and leave everybody else with open windows in the middle of winter. Toilets and faucets that leak millions and millions of gallons of water every month. And the autos waste more energy in the city because they’re gridlocked…they’re not going anywhere. So I say POO! to the location ineffiency myth writer. Let’s see the facts first.

  3. Max Entropy says:

    You didn’t mention the environmentalist BANANAS. Build Absolute Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody.
    Is this our first clue that EPA is going to start trying to regulate where we live now? Are they going to start an incremental process toward banning single-family houses or large lots using the cry of efficiency or saving the planet? Somebody needs to cut their funding, they clearly have too much time and money to spend interfering with our lives

  4. I had to laugh out loud because I too have a 5 acre wooded lot. However, I live in a low population density area. There is no way I would battle snarled traffic to have a place like I have now. I actually enjoy my half hour drive each way to work and back. I battled the traffic in the DC area twenty years ago, commuting 1/3 as far in the same amount of time probably burning just as much gasoline.