Dim Bulbs

When it comes to saving energy, it seems Americans are kind of dim bulbs. A new survey finds consumers have some powerful misperceptions about how they use energy – and the best ways to save it.

It’s become a truism that to curb greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the environmental damage associated with energy development, consumers will need to learn to conserve. To find out if Americans know where to start, researchers led by Shahzeen Z. Attari of Columbia University in New York City used the online bulletin board Craigslist to recruit 505 subjects in seven major cities, including New York, Houston and Los Angeles. Then, they asked the participants to name the “most effective thing they could do to save energy.” Next, they asked them to estimate the amount of energy used by nine common appliances, ranging from computers to air conditioners. Finally, the respondents were asked to estimate the energy that could be saved by taking six actions, such as using lower wattage light bulbs or drying clothes on a line.

In general, the survey showed that most respondents overestimated the savings that could be achieved by doing things that curtail energy use, such as turning off lights. In contrast, they underestimated the savings that could come from installing new energy-efficient bulbs (rather than turning off the light) or replacing inefficient appliances. And although many of those surveyed were able to identify the appliances that used the most energy, they generally low-balled actual consumption. Overall, however, people who self-identified as concerned about the environment had more accurate perceptions than those who did not.

The survey revealed “relatively little knowledge regarding the comparative energy use and potential savings related to different behaviors,” the authors report in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). As result, consumers “may continue to believe they are doing their part to reduce energy use when they engage in low-effort, low-impact actions,” such as unplugging a cell phone charger, “instead of focusing on changes that would make a bigger difference.” But there is a bright spot, they say: Given the general low level of understanding, a well-designed education campaign on the best ways to save energy could make a relatively big difference. David Malakoff

Shahzeen Z. Attari, Michael L. DeKay, Cliff I. Davidson, and Wandi Bruine de Bruin. “Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings.” PNAS (2010). www.pnas.org, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1001509107

Image © Péter Gudella