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Americans’ Sense of Energy Savings? Small Change.

By Douglas Fischer, Daily Climate editor

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Spc. Rick Canfield, a multi-media illustrator at Headquarters Company in the U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul, changes a light bulb to conserve energy as part of a post-wide community effort earlier this summer. Photo courtesy Sgt. Opal Vaughn/U.S. Army

Quick  — what's the most effective way for you to save energy?

If you're like many Americans, you'd say turn out the lights or turn up the AC's thermostat.

And, like many Americans, you'd miss the mark.

Turns out, when figuring what we can do to go green, most of us overstate. We think about curtailment - unplugging appliances, driving less, turning off lights - when improving the efficiency of our cars, appliances and home would take the biggest chunk out of our energy footprint.

When you think about your life, what's really easy to do is turn off the lights when you leave the room.
  —Shahzeen Attari, Columbia University's Earth Institute and Center for Research on Environmental Decisions

That's not a surprise to scientists who surveyed 505 Americans on their perceptions of energy consumption and savings. After all, curtailment is pretty easy: Flip a switch. Improving efficiency, on the other hand, requires research, effort, out-of-pocket expense: Does anybody want to buy a new washing machine when what's downstairs works just fine?

The researchers started their survey with a simple open-ended question: What's the single most-effective thing you can do to conserve energy? Their findings were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More than 40 percent of the respondents said one of three things: Turn off lights, drive less or change the thermostat.

Less than 10 percent identified what experts generally agree are the most effective measures — insulate the house or use more efficient appliances or cars.

"When you think about your life, what's really easy to do is turn off the lights when you leave the room," said Shahzeen Attari, the study's lead author and a researcher at Columbia University's Earth Institute and Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. 

Researchers note that for many of us, concerns about energy simply are not strong enough, compared to other daily worries, to warrant learning about energy conservation.

But raise fuel prices or impose a tax on carbon that reflects its role in climate change and other environmental harm, and the public would have ample incentive to get educated in a hurry.

After all, it was the spike in gas prices in 2008 that brought the auto industry to its knees and triggered some of the nation's sharpest declines in vehicle-miles traveled since recordkeeping began in the 1940s.

"With a carbon tax we would see changes," Attari noted. "People are pretty elastic when it comes to the consumption of energy."

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What you can do

Let's face it: nobody's going to go out and replace a working hot-water heater or washing machine. And few of us have a few grand lying around to replace our drafty old windows. But there are some easy steps you can take that can effectively cut energy consumption.

  • Buy your beverages in aluminum cans, not glass bottles. Making a glass bottle requires 1.4 times the energy of an aluminum can when virgin materials are used. Toss recycled materials into the equation and the difference jumps to 20 times as much. In part that's because glass is so heavy.
  • Change your washer's settings. Most people assume line-drying clothes — a time-consuming process to be sure — saves more energy than using colder water and optimizing loads. In fact the reverse is true.
  • Cool the room, not the house. Many of us think, incorrectly, that central air uses marginally more energy than a room air conditioner. The reality is it uses 3.5 times as much.

Photo of wool home insulation batts courtesy Sustainable Initiatives Fund Trust, via flickr.
This work by The Daily Climate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.