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Energy Use in Commercial Buildings

Commercial buildings include a variety of building types—offices, hospitals, schools, police stations, places of worship, warehouses, hotels, and shopping malls. Different commercial building activities have unique energy needs but, as a whole, space heating accounted for about 25% of the total energy use in commercial buildings in 2012.

Types of energy used in commercial buildings

Electricity and natural gas are the most common energy sources used in commercial buildings. Most individual commercial buildings have their own heating and cooling systems. However, some commercial buildings are supplied by district energy systems. When there are many buildings close together, like on a college campus or in a big city, it is sometimes more efficient to have a central heating and cooling plant that distributes steam, hot water, or chilled water to all of the different buildings. District energy systems may also produce electricity along with heating and cooling energy. District energy systems generally use fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, or fuel oil), although some use renewable sources of energy (biomass, geothermal, solar, and wind energy).

Energy use by type of building

Of all the commercial building types, mercantile and service buildings use the most total energy. Other commercial users of energy include offices, schools, health care and lodging facilities, food establishments, and many others.

Image of the types of energy used by commercial buildings in 2012. Electricity is 61%, natural gas is 32%, district is heating 5%, and fuel oil is 2%.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2012 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey: Energy Usage Summary, Table 1 (March 2016)

The top five energy-consuming building categories used about half of the energy consumed by all commercial buildings in 2012, and they include the following types of buildings:

  • Mercantile and service (15% of total energy consumed by commercial buildings)
    • Malls and stores
    • Car dealerships
    • Dry cleaners
    • Gas stations
  • Office (14% of consumption)
    • Professional and government offices
    • Banks
  • Education (10% of consumption)
    • Elementary, middle, and high school
    • Colleges
  • Health care (8% of consumption)
    • Hospitals
    • Medical offices
  • Lodging (6% of consumption)
    • Hotels
    • Dormitories
    • Nursing homes

Last reviewed: April 7, 2016

More site electricity is consumed for lighting than for any other end use.

Bar graph showing the use of electricity in commercial buildings in 2003.  Lighting 38%, cooling 13%, ventilation 13%, refrigeration 12%, other 12%, computers 5%, space heating 4%, office equipment 2%, water heating 2%, cooking 1%
Click to enlarge »

There were about 4.9 million commercial1 buildings with a total of about 72 billion square feet of floorspace in the United States in 2003.2 Five types of buildings—office, mercantile, education, healthcare, and lodging represented 51% of all commercial buildings and had 60% of the total commercial building floorspace. These types of buildings also used the most energy of all types of commercial buildings.

Electricity and natural gas are the dominant energy sources in commercial buildings

Electricity and natural gas accounted for about 87% of the total energy consumed in commercial buildings in 2003. Natural gas is generally used directly in commercial buildings to heat water and interior space, and to operate cooling equipment. Some commercial buildings have combined heat and power systems that provide heat (and cooling) and that generate electricity for the building. Most of these combined heat and power systems use natural gas. Natural gas was the source of 32% of total energy end-use consumption in commercial buildings in 2003.

Electricity's3 share of total energy end-use consumption in commercial buildings increased from 38% in 1979 to 55% in 2003.

Office equipment has contributed to the increase in electricity consumption

The increase in the amount of electricity consumed in commercial buildings between 1979 and 2003 is related to the increased use of existing types of electrical equipment, and it is related to the introduction of new types of equipment in commercial buildings. The new types of equipment include computers (desktop computers, monitors, and servers), office equipment (printers, copiers, and fax machines), telecommunications equipment, and medical diagnostic and monitoring equipment. In addition to electricity consumed directly by the equipment, the equipment can also require additional electricity consumption for cooling and ventilation.

Lighting is the largest single use for electricity in commercial buildings

Lighting is the major end use of electricity in commercial buildings, and it is a target for energy savings through use of energy-efficient light sources and through advanced lighting technologies. Nearly all commercial buildings have some type of lighting. Most of the buildings without lighting are warehouses and vacant buildings.

Commercial buildings in the South U.S. Census region have the most floorspace and use more energy than other regions

The total floorspace of commercial buildings in the South U.S. Census region was 26.7 billion square feet in 2003. Major fuel consumption in these buildings was equivalent to more than 2 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu). More than $38 billion was spent on electricity in these commercial buildings alone.

Large commercial buildings use the most energy overall, but there are fewer of them

In 2003, 90% of the commercial buildings in the United States each had less than 25,000 square feet of floorspace, but they accounted for only about a third of total commercial building energy use.

In contrast to smaller commercial buildings, the share of total commercial building energy consumption by larger commercial buildings greatly exceeds their share of the number of total commercial buildings. In 2003, less than 1% of buildings were larger than 200,000 square feet in size, but these buildings accounted for more than one-fourth of total commercial building energy consumption. Only 5% of buildings in 2003 were larger than 50,000 square feet in size, but these buildings accounted for more than 55% of total energy consumption in commercial buildings.

Nearly 40% of U.S. commercial building floorspace is in the South U.S. Census region.

Bar chart showing commercial building floorspace by region, 2003. South 26.74 billion square feet, Midwest  18.10  billion square feet, Northeast 13.99    billion square feet, West 12.84  billion square feet.
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Buildings in the South U.S. Census region accounted for more than one-third of total energy consumed in commercial buildings in 2003.

Bar chart showing total energy consumption in commercial buildings by region, 2003, expressed in trillion Btu, the South consumed the most and West consumed the least.
Click to enlarge »

1 Commercial buildings are defined as all buildings where at least half of the floorspace is not used for residential, industrial, or agricultural purposes, so they include building types that might not commonly be considered commercial, such as schools, correctional institutions, and buildings used for religious worship.

2 2003 is the most recent year for which detailed data were available at the time of this update.

3 Electricity end-use consumption; excludes losses in electricity generation, transmission, and distribution.

Last updated: February 4, 2016