Why We Need Energy Literacy

Engineering Interns from the districk go back to high school

Energy literacy. The first time I heard this term was last week during a meetup between a group of educators, Department of Energy officials, non-profit workers, and tech execs, held at Saul Griffith’s Otherlabs in the Dogpatch section of San Francisco. Sitting amid the scattered tools and underneath the bicycle parts hanging from the ceiling (Otherlabs is an inventor’s paradise) the group sought one goal: to help shape a document that’s being collectively developed by the Department of Energy and other U.S. government agencies, along with public input, which will be used to promote and enact energy education in schools, and will likely help shape energy policy and federal funding.

The so-called Energy Literacy guiding document, as the organizers of the meeting were calling it, will be modeled on the Climate Literacy and Ocean Literacy projects, and will be a dozen or so pages of text and images that lay out the context, background and definitions of energy consumption, put energy in the context of global warming and explain what it means and why it’s important to be energy literate.

As most people know who read this site know, the average American knows very little about personal energy consumption and energy savings. According to a survey published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Americans overestimate the energy savings of actions like turning off lights, and riding public transportation, but underestimate the energy consumption of other things like using central air conditioning. A key to guiding people to make better decisions about their own energy usage, will be establishing the knowledge about how energy flows work at an earlier age.

This brings us back to the document that will be the reference point for this energy education revolution (hey, sometimes revolutions start out in very boring ways). While a dozen-page document might sound like something you could punch out in a couple of weeks, the idea is to draw feedback from across the various interested groups and create something that can be used as a single reference point. The project, led by Matthew Inman, an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow with the DOE (who is the embodiment of your favorite high school teacher), will use a wiki to draw feedback from interested parties over the next few months, and will hopefully deliver the first version of the document by the summer, 2011.

A project with so much potential input, and with such lofty goals, is bound to face that classic problem: way to many cooks in the kitchen. As an outsider to most policy and academic discussions, and as the only journalist at the meeting last week, I was overwhelmed by all the various opinions thrown out about what words to use and avoid by the end of the meeting.

For example, Inman presented some of his first thoughts on wording for definitions of energy use that sounded like a physics lesson, while some in the group thought the definitions should be connected more to climate change from the start. Still, others in the group thought aligning the energy discussion too strongly to climate change would politicize the document. Sometimes a democracy isn’t always the cleanest and fastest way to reach a conclusion.

For me, I was asked to join the discussion mostly as a way to help the language and the document be more accessible to the public. I can envision a document that’s also easy to digest by the average reader, not just by academic leaders and policy makers. If you’re interested in giving input to this document, stay tuned, and I’ll send out the wiki when it goes online.

Beyond the nitty-gritty of the wording of this baseline document, it’s clear more than ever that we need to become much more energy literate by whatever means necessary. Technology can be one tool. Some think a sort of sixth sense for energy, in the form of design elements in buildings, appliances and gadgets, will be a key. Griffith spent time putting together his own energy footprint of a year of his life, and after realizing he had no idea he was consuming so much energy, helped launch the energy tracking website Wattzon.com.

What about you? Are you energy literate?

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Image courtesy of USACE Europe District.

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