Saving Energy in All the Wrong Places

Aug 17, 2010 3:40pm

Scientists, political leaders and environmentalists exhort people to save energy — and apparently, according to a survey from Columbia University's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, have done a terrible job of telling people how best to do it.

Shahzeen Attari of Columbia's Earth Institute and three colleagues surveyed 505 Americans, and asked them how to protect the environment, reduce our need for foreign oil, save money and all that. The number one answer: "turn the lights off."

Wrong, says Attari, citing several lists of recommendations.  You don't have to sit in the dark, or turn off the air conditioner, she says. You can do the same things more efficiently and, in the long run, less expensively — but people haven't gotten the message.

In the survey, published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 19.6 percent of those surveyed said "turn off lights," while only 3.6 percent said "use efficient light bulbs."  Likewise, 12.9 percent said "drive less," while 2.8 percent said "use efficient cars/hybrids."  The full paper is HERE.

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

Americans have been misled into thinking that efficiency means sacrifice (remember Jimmy Carter's sweater?).  Sure, says Attari, every little bit helps — but over time, she says, a new refrigerator will save you a lot more than unplugging your cell-phone charger. 

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