Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings



When asked for the most effective strategy they could implement to conserve energy, most participants mentioned curtailment (e.g., turning off lights, driving less) rather than efficiency improvements (e.g., installing more efficient light bulbs and appliances), in contrast to experts’ recommendations.

For a sample of 15 activities, participants underestimated energy use and savings by a factor of 2.8 on average, with small overestimates for low-energy activities and large underestimates for high-energy activities. Additional estimation and ranking tasks also yielded relatively flat functions for perceived energy use and savings. Across several tasks, participants with higher numeracy scores and stronger proenvironmental attitudes had more accurate perceptions. The serious deficiencies highlighted by these results suggest that well-designed efforts to improve the public’s understanding of energy use and savings could pay large dividends.

Researchers said most Americans focus on what they can do that is cheap and easy at the moment, and do not think about the importance of taking basic steps, such as buying high-mileage vehicles. Another problem, researchers said, is that the public suffers from a “single-action bias,” meaning that after doing one or two things to save small amounts of energy, people feel they have done enough.

The gaps in knowledge versus reality suggest there is a significant opportunity for education to help consumers make better decisions to save energy. For example, Americans are more likely to say using less energy, such as shutting off lights, is the quickest path to energy conservation, without considering the potential savings from using more energy efficient equipment and behaviors, such as switching to compact fluorescent lightbulbs.

\”Relative to experts\’ recommendations, participants were overly focused on curtailment rather than efficiency, possibly because improvements almost always involve research, effort, and out-of-pocket costs (e.g., buying a new energy-efficient appliance),\” the report said, \”whereas curtailment may be easier to imagine and incorporate into one\’s daily behaviors without any upfront costs.\”

Interestingly, participants who went out of their way to act in ways that were more environmentally friendly guessed less accurately.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said the survey results show that environmental groups, scientists, and government officials have failed to effectively communicate the relatively painless steps people can take to slash their energy consumption.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Published online before print August 16, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1001509107) / by Shahzeen Z. Attaria, Michael L. DeKay, Cliff I. Davidson, and Wändi Bruine de Bruin (Open access article)