Energy Independence: Is Online Shopping the Solution?

by JT McGee

Peak driving and online shopping: are they related?This blog has a serious identity problem. I twist and turn from small micro issues to the macro, but I think we could all do a lot of good in focusing on the big issues that plague us. One of these “big problems” for the US economy is energy independence. Might a solution for energy independence be as simple as shopping online?

I’m no tree hugger—not in the least, but I can recognize a serious problem when I see one. We consume too much, and save far too little. One area in which every American consumer could afford to cut back is in energy consumption.

Online shopping to solve energy woes

There’s a lot of merit in using online retailing as a mechanism to reduce total energy consumption. Websites are very energy efficient, inexpensive to operate, and warehouses are infinitely more efficient than storefronts. Where you and I would hate to go shopping in a store that is air conditioned only to 80 degrees, we don’t mind shopping from the comfort of our homes from a warehouse that is hardly air conditioned at all. That alone brings big savings, but there’s more!

A study by the Center for Energy & Climate Solutions finds that:

  • Shipping two 20 pound containers via overnight air is 40% less energy intensive than driving 20 miles round-trip in your automobile to get the same products.
  • Shipping the same containers via ground shipping is 10 times more efficient than doing the same in a car.

The reasons for this are fairly obvious:

  1. Delivery trucks and planes can distribute the cost of fuel over many thousands of pounds of cargo.
  2. Your car isn’t as fuel efficient as you might think. Turning it on and off repeatedly is a sure-fire way of killing your own gas mileage, especially for intra-city commutes.

The raw numbers

Supposedly, it takes .6 gallons of fuel to send a package 1000 miles by plane, and .1 gallons by ground.

It’s easy to see how I save on fuel consumption when shopping online. I live no more than 2 miles away from a Target, Walmart, Best Buy, and other “big box stores.” However, in between my home and the shopping center are at least 4 stoplights, all of which can be as long as 1-2 minutes. If traffic is heavy, it may take me 15 minutes to travel only 2 miles.

Since 2009, Americans have used less energy in commuting by car. Freakonomics took a stab at the declines, noting that:

  1. Female participation in the workforce has peaked.
  2. Energy prices reduce the marginal benefit of another trip in a car.

These are important points, but I’m thinking that online shopping may have something to do with it, too.

In the aggregate, the amount of miles driven each year has an exponential effect on our own willingness to drive. If we each added 5 more miles to our weekly commutes, congestion would be horrendous. By eliminating only a few shopping trips with online retailers, we can replace several hundred cars with a single USPS, Fedex, or UPS truck.

Just think what that does to reduce congestion and increase total fuel economy. If you go driving at 3PM, there really isn’t that much more traffic than at rush hour. But even 10% more cars make driving almost unbearable. Ten percent fewer cars would naturally make the roadways far less congested, and improve total fuel efficiency.

Is reducing our dependence on foreign oil easier than political fights over drilling rights or oil company tax breaks? Could we solve our energy problems with a very simple solution: online shopping?


Do you shop online?

Does shopping online save you shopping trips? Gasoline?

Photo by: Richard Masoner

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff Reed July 11, 2011 at 13:52

I shop online. A lot. If not for my broadband connection my family would have gone without clothing for the past decade (scary thought). I even shop at periodically instead of at one of the 3 bricks & mortar stores I pass on my way to the office daily (3 miles). I stock up on the essentials quarterly since you receive free shipping with a minimum order. The other benefit is avoiding impulse buys like giant bags of pretzels or malted milk-balls.

I go to Wal-Mart 2-3 times per year whether I need to or not. Now that I can buy my fishing license online make that twice per year. I renew my vehicle tags online. I send my nieces and nephews gifts from Amazon. I send friends, family and clients greeting cards via SendOutCards (It is my wife’s side business and I am her only client. I send a lot of cards.).

I am not anti-social. I really like to be around people just not “shoppers”. Some people lose civility online but most “shoppers” have no civility to lose. Wall to wall people at a local concert doesn’t bother me. 100,000 fans at a football game, ditto. Two helicopter moms fighting over the last Sponge Bob Snuggy makes my blood pressure rise. Throw in Groupon and you have a recipe for disaster. My wife thinks I may need to chill out sometimes. I told her that was why I fished.

Shopping online saves me trips and therefore gasoline. More importantly it saves my sanity.


JT McGee July 15, 2011 at 16:55

LOL! Sponge Bob Snuggy cracked me up.

You’re right, though, people who enjoy shopping are a different breed. Well, maybe I’m just different, but still. I can’t wrap my head around the idea that making a shopping trip part of my everyday experience is supposed to be fun. It feels like work.


Mike - Saving Money Today July 14, 2011 at 20:43

I’m definitely not a shopper! I but as much online as possible so I can avoid the packed parking lots and ridiculously long lines at the mall.


JT McGee July 15, 2011 at 16:53

You and me both. I can’t stand the traffic (vehicular and pedestrian) to get into a store with higher prices than online. Just doesn’t make sense to me.


101 Centavos July 16, 2011 at 21:48

Online shopping saves time and energy, which in some contexts are one and the same. Although I’m a big fan of Amazon and Amazon prime, sometimes some time spent at Barnes and Noble (or similar) gives the opportunity to touch and feel and preview and find the odd bargain book or two. And, a fine cup of coffee and tasty dessert with your honey is a nice way to cap it off.


Chris June 6, 2012 at 01:01

So according to the CECS solutions, it takes considerably less fuel expenditure for the following to happen:
1. Large semi truck or airplane to take a load of packages to a metropolitan package hub.
2. Medium-sized delivery truck to take a package from that hub to my house.

Than for the following to happen:
1. Large semi truck to haul a load of goods to a big-box retailer at a mall.
2. A small car to take those goods from that store to my house.

Sounds fishy to me. I won’t believe the study until I see the detail numbers — and maybe not even then.


JT McGee June 6, 2012 at 01:20

Imagine if you went from your house to the big box retailer and picked up your stuff and your neighbors. The total gas consumption would be largely the same compared to if you picked up just your own, but you’d get twice as much done.

Delivery vans and trucks average ~8 mpg. It’s plainly obvious that a single truck making the rounds at 8mpg is way more efficient than 150 cars driving every which way at 12-30 mpg.

Get out a piece of paper. Draw a square. Put a 100 houses on it. Measure the distance around the square, and then the distance from every house to a certain point and back on the square (the hub or mall). The distance around is the distance the Fedex truck has to drive. The combined distances for each individual is the distance small cars have to drive. Fairly logical that a single delivery truck trumps individual drivers, no?


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