Jason Barton

Professional Information and Energy News

Many Americans Are Still Clueless on How to Save Energy

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I’m guilty. I feel good about using less hot water or eating (slightly) less meat, and then drive and fly all over creation. We should definitely set our sights on taking down the major energy-consuming aspects of our lives–reducing transportation both for ourselves and what we buy; more efficient homes that require less electricity to heat, cool, and light; etc.–but I still think there’s value in the little things. It provides opportunities for us to think about our daily activities and how we can use less energy.

This article provides several points to direct immediate, practical action. For example, tuning up our cars twice a year is much more effective from an energy efficiency perspective than driving more slowly or even driving a more fuel efficient car.

A glaring omission, I think, is the lack of attention paid to food. Meat is much more energy and land intensive than fruits and vegetables, and when we eat local foods that are in season they are generally much less energy-intensive than buying apples from New Zealand. There are exceptions to the local food maxims, such as with greenhouses or certain kinds of livestock that thrive in certain places much better than others and therefore require less energy inputs, less exotic food than what is available in their native habitats and similar lands.

A paper by Vaclav Smil (2002) provides an in depth and very reliable examination of the precise figures regarding use of nitrogen fertilizer, which can be viewed basically as powdered energy, for human food consumption. One clear point is that beef is much more energy-intensive than pork, with chicken, eggs, carp, and milk rounding out his list (see figure at right).

The absence of food as a major energy user, one we consume, or most of us would like to, several times each day, is perhaps just a choice of focus for the authors of the article below. That fault notwithstanding, the article is worth the read. Beneficial, easily actionable information is something else many of us like to consume several times each day.

Feel free to let me know what you think.

Thanks for your time.

ScienceDaily (Aug. 17, 2010) — Many Americans believe they can save energy with small behavior changes that actually achieve very little, and severely underestimate the major effects of switching to efficient, currently available technologies, says a new survey of Americans in 34 states. The study, which quizzed people on what they perceived as the most effective way to save energy, appears in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The largest group, nearly 20 percent, cited turning off lights as the best approach — an action that affects energy budgets relatively little. Very few cited buying decisions that experts say would cut U.S. energy consumption dramatically, such as more efficient cars (cited by only 2.8 percent), more efficient appliances (cited by 3.2 percent) or weatherizing homes (cited by 2.1 percent). Previous researchers have concluded that households could reduce their energy consumption some 30 percent by making such choices — all without waiting for new technologies, making big economic sacrifices or losing their sense of well-being.


Previous studies have indicated that if Americans switched to better household and vehicle technologies, U.S. energy consumption would decline substantially within a decade. Some of the highest-impact decisions, consistently underrated by people surveyed, include driving higher-mileage vehicles, and switching from central air conditioning to room air conditioners. In addition to turning off lights, overrated behaviors included driving more slowly on the highway or unplugging chargers and appliances when not in use. In one of the more egregious misperceptions, according to the survey, people commonly think that using and recycling glass bottles saves a lot of energy; in fact, making a glass container from virgin material uses 40 percent more energy than making an aluminum one — and 2,000 percent more when recycled material is used.

Many side factors may complicate people’s perceptions. For instance, those who identified themselves in the survey as pro-environment tended to have more accurate perceptions. But people who engaged in more energy-conserving behaviors were actually less accurate — possibly a reflection of unrealistic optimism about the actions they personally were choosing to take. On the communications end, one previous study from Duke University has shown that conventional vehicle miles-per-gallon ratings do not really convey how switching from one vehicle to another affects gas consumption (contrary to popular perception, if you do the math, modest mileage improvements to very low-mileage vehicles will save far more gas than inventing vehicles that get astronomically high mileage). Also, said Attari, people typically are willing to take one or two actions to address a perceived problem, but after that, they start to believe they have done all they can, and attention begins to fade. Behavior researchers call this the “single-action bias.” “Of course we should be doing everything we can. But if we’re going to do just one or two things, we should focus on the big energy-saving behaviors,” said Attari. “People are still not aware of what the big savers are.”

Read the summary article and access the full report here.