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Americans Are Confused When It Comes To Energy Savings

August 31, 2010

Americans are generally without a clue when it comes to energy savings, it turns out. This is according to a new study conducted by Columbia University's Earth Institute and Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. For the research project, 505 individuals in 34 U.S. states were asked their perceptions of a host of energy-savings related-issues surrounding household energy use, recycling and transportation. The result? Most Americans are largely pretty devoid of knowledge - and confused, to boot -- when it comes to both their own energy consumption and steps to take for energy savings.

The study, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that when asked an open-ended question about which energy-saving activities are most effective at home, most people believed that turning off the lights was the best thing they could do (in reality, it saves very little). True energy-saving activities, such as installing low-energy light bulbs, weatherizing the house or buying Energy Star appliances, seemed largely unknown to most participants. Researchers noted that Americans are more likely to cite "curtailing" activities, or simply using less energy than usual, rather than "efficiency" activities, or improving the existing efficiencies of certain activities; for example, replacing incandescent light bulbs with CFL bulbs, installing insulation or replacing an old car with a hybrid-electric model. The reason behind this knowledge deficiency, the study's authors speculated, is that efficiency measures take more effort to implement. They require "research, effort, and out-of-pocket costs (e.g., buying a new energy-efficient appliance), whereas curtailment may be easier to imagine and incorporate into one's daily behaviors without any upfront costs."

To get a better of idea of what study respondents knew about energy use, researchers asked participants to estimate the number of "energy units" (an "energy unit" was the amount of energy used by a 100-watt light bulb for one hour) typically used in one hour by nine common household devices and appliances. They were also asked to estimate the number of energy units that would be saved by six energy-curtailing activities such as changing washing machine temperatures from "hot wash, warm rinse" to "warm wash, cold rinse" for a load of laundry. Participants were also asked to estimate how many units of energy several car-related efficiency steps would save (i.e., slowing down, tuning the engine). Next, respondents were asked to rank the amount of energy needed to transport one ton of goods for one mile by truck, train, ship and airplane. Finally, they were asked to estimate the energy used to make a can from virgin aluminum, a can from recycled aluminum, a bottle from virgin glass, and a bottle from recycled glass.

At the lower end of the energy savings spectrum (estimating the energy use and savings for small activities), respondents were fairly accurate; for example, estimating the savings between incandescent and CFL light bulbs. Where estimates fell apart most markedly was in the energy related to more energy-intensive activities such as the use of large appliances or transportation. Or, as the study's authors put it, "People's understanding may be worse where the potential for CO2 reductions is large." Not surprisingly, individuals who reported more pro-environmental attitudes showed more accuracy in their estimations in most areas of the study.

Some of the incorrect perceptions are head-shakers, to say the least (and lest you think the study's authors were interviewing country bumpkins, the respondents were largely residents of seven metro areas: New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Houston, Dallas, Denver and Los Angeles). However, some of the misperceptions were understandable: for example, most respondents believed that using a clothes line to dry clothes rather than an electric dryer would save more money than merely adjusting the temperature settings on an automatic washing machine. In reality, the opposite is true.

Some of the notable findings were as follows:

-  While participants correctly guessed that shipping by airplane used the most energy and that shipping by train and boat were comparable in energy use, they incorrectly estimated that shipping via truck was similar to train and boat. In fact, shipping by truck consumes about 10 times more energy than shipping via train or boat.

-  Consumers believed that making a glass bottle requires less energy than making an aluminum can: in reality, the manufacture of a glass bottle takes 1.4 times more energy than the manufacture of the aluminum can.

-  Study respondents estimated that central air conditioning units use only 1.3 times as much energy as room air conditioners, though the figure is more correctly about 3.5 times as much energy.

-  The authors found a great deal of misunderstanding when it came to fuel use and energy savings in automobiles, and that the fuel efficiency designation for cars, miles per gallon, may be the source of confusion. As a result of their findings, the study's authors recommend the designation be changed to a more comprehensible "gallons per 100 miles."

So who knew the most about energy and energy savings? It's not easy to say. Researchers were surprised that demographics didn't seem to help predict how much people knew. Data about respondents that might have been expected to affect the accuracy of a person's answers, such as their attitude toward climate change, education, home ownership, age and income, were not good predictors of the accuracy of his or her estimates.

In its conclusion, the study's authors use their research to make some policy recommendations. They state that, given the deficiency in knowledge for most Americans, well-crafted and well-targeted public service messages, presented in a "credible and comprehensible manner" and with correct energy-saving information, could yield big results. The report states that, "Participants in our tasks may have needed only basic knowledge to obtain significant positive slopes [results]," and notes that previous efforts to induce Americans to change their energy use behavior have focused on activities that were largely inefficient. The study's authors, however, also made a darker observation. "Many people's concerns about energy are simply not strong enough, relative to their other concerns, to warrant learning about energy conservation." This, if true, would seem to suggest that efforts to induce consumers to save energy be focused more on the benefits to their wallets rather than the benefits to the planet.

Related to the "wallet approach," the study's researchers made a final observation that may be even harder for U.S. consumers to swallow: that the truest and most effective way to decrease emissions in the United States is to raise the prices of fossil fuel, which would lower consumption. "In addition to improved communication efforts, increasing fossil fuel prices to reflect the true environmental costs of CO2 emissions would also provide strong incentives for learning and behavior change."


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