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Getting It Wrong: Americans and Energy Savings

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Turning off lights, unplugging appliances when not in use and using public transportation seem obvious choices if you want to cut energy use. But as it turns out, Americans overestimate the energy savings of those actions and underestimate the energy consumption of other behaviors, such as using central air conditioning, according to a survey published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The survey of 505 people from 34 states, including seven large cities (New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Denver, Los Angeles, etc.), is fascinating because it shows the success (and failure) of some of the most touted energy saving measures by government, researchers and media.

The survey asked respondents for what they thought would be the most effective action they could take to conserve energy. Turning off the lights was the top vote getter, receiving a nod from 19.6 percent of the respondents. Driving less, changing the thermostat setting, “change my lifestyle/not have children” and unplugging appliances (remember all those stories about “vampire power”?) also were ranked high by respondents in the survey conducted by researchers at Columbia University, Ohio State University and Carnegie Mellon University.

In reality, though many of these actions, like turning off the lights, actually save “very little” energy, according to the researchers, compared to consumers buying energy efficient technologies like lights and appliances and insulating their homes.

On the other hand, survey participants perceived actions like buying energy efficient light bulbs and appliances to be less important, even though those measures could actually save more energy. Those measures included driving more fuel-efficient cars (2.8 percent of respondents said this was important), weatherizing homes (2.1 percent), using more efficient light bulbs (3.6 percent) and buying more efficient appliances (3.2 percent). The researchers noted that these measures, while they can save more energy and money, also cost more to implement than to simply cut back on using what people already have, which is one reason why consumers might be less likely to embrace them.

By the way, 2.8 percent of the respondents opted for sleeping/relaxing more while 2.6 percent chose buying solar or other green energy as the best way to save energy.

The survey results also showed misperceptions about energy use and savings. For example, respondents thought line-drying clothes could save more energy than changing the washer’s setting — which isn’t true. They also believed a central air conditioner would use 1.3 times the energy of a room air conditioner when in fact it would use 3.5 times as much energy.

Consumers appear to be more accurate when it comes to estimating consumption and savings for behaviors such as using a desktop computer and replacing an incandescent bulb with a CFL variety. And people largely got it right when reporting that making a can or bottle from aluminum or glass takes more energy than making the same products from recycled materials.

However, most people thought that making a glass bottle takes less energy than producing an aluminum can — not so much. Researchers said the opposite is true: a glass bottle will take 1.4 times as much energy as an aluminum can when using virgin materials, and 20 times as much energy when using recycled materials. “In part because glass is so heavy, making a recycled glass bottle actually requires more energy than making a virgin aluminum can,” the researchers wrote.

This might be our favorite ironic bit: “Participants with stronger pro-environmental attitudes were also more accurate. Unexpectedly, participants who engaged more in energy-conserving behaviors had less accurate perception of energy use and savings, possibly reflecting unrealistic optimism about the effectiveness of their personal energy-saving strategies compared with alternative ones,” according to the study.

Of course, one conclusion the researchers have reached is a need to design better public education campaigns. One study by Gartner last year showed that consumers aren’t always aware of energy saving measures offered by their utilities.

Image courtesy of Nioxxe.

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Home Energy Management, Consumer Attitudes & Preferences

6 Responses to “Getting It Wrong: Americans and Energy Savings”

  1. It doesn’t come as a surprise, nor should this study concludes that people are stupid. The key is to measure, measure, measure. The alternative is to trust your instinct, which has good opportunity to be completely off-base. Even business leaders and politicians often assert many things base on their believe, only to be contradicted later once the number come out.

    On my part I have used the kill-a-watt to measure the power usage of many appliances. In particular I’m interest to see how bad the vampire power usage really is. In most cases kill-a-watt reports 0 watt usage for idle appliance or adapters. The only offender I’ve found is a Motorola set-top box. It uses 18 watt steadily irrespective of whether it is turned on or off. From my observation vampire power is an overblown concern. One hour of space heater will use far more energy than all idle appliances combined. (This doesn’t mean I’m not bothered by the proliferation of power adapter though).

  2. I thought this survey came off a bit snippy (not due to Ms. Wang, but the original authors).

    Why conduct a survey that illuminates how stupid people are with their behaviors, without clearly explaining these (apparently poorly understood) costs, and their references for them. How can we be sure these people are even correct?

    The glass vs. aluminum issue bothered me for a bit, and I didn’t know why. Then it occurred to me that, first, the glass vs. aluminum CHOICE is not really very common with consumers, except perhaps in the case of beer bottles. Second, other issues (such as landfill usage) may play a role in the decision to recycle glass. It would be interesting to see the energy cost of washing and re-using glass bottles (like they did in the old days) but of course no such analysis was done in the survey either…..

    The issue is more glass vs. plastic. Given the reality that plastic waste seems to hang around (basically forever) I think there is bit more complexity to the issue than pure energy use (What is the energy cost of managing plastic waste for several thousand years?).

    Someone smarter than me pointed out that if you want to lower your energy footprint, drive a smaller car and insulate your home. Probably good advice.

  3. It makes sense that participants would optimistically err on the side of thinking that daily actions under their control have a lot of impact – it takes effort to remember all the small habits.

    In reality, behavioral changes are a lot less “sticky” in terms of long-term energy savings than energy-efficiency retrofits or appliance upgrades. It’s pretty easy to let habits slide, but permanent improvements to infrastructure require less behavioral change after the initial installation.

    More at