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Survey Finds Many Americans Have a Very Poor Understanding of Energy Use and Savings

Mean perceptions of energy used or saved as a function of actual energy used or saved for 15 devices and activities. The diagonal dashed line represents perfect accuracy. Inset: Individual regression curves for 30 randomly selected participants. Source: Attari et al. Click to enlarge.

A new survey by researchers from Columbia University, Ohio State University and Carnegie Mellon University finds that many Americans have a very poor understanding of energy use and savings. Many of the 505 participants believed they can save energy with small behavior changes that actually achieve very little, while severely underestimating the major effects of switching to efficient, currently available technologies. The study appears in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The largest group, nearly 20%, cited turning off lights as the best approach—an action that affects energy budgets relatively little, according to the researchers. Very few cited buying decisions that experts say would cut US energy consumption dramatically, such as more efficient cars (cited by only 2.8%), more efficient appliances (cited by 3.2%) or weatherizing homes (cited by 2.1%).

Previous researchers have concluded that households could reduce energy consumption some 30% by making such choices—all without waiting for new technologies, making big economic sacrifices or losing their sense of well-being.

Notwithstanding a few bright spots (e.g., knowing roughly how much energy is saved by a CFL), participants in this study exhibited relatively little knowledge regarding the comparative energy use and potential savings related to different behaviors. 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.

Participants were also poorly attuned to large energy differences across devices and activities and unaware of differences for some large-scale economic activities (transporting goods by train vs. truck) and everyday items (aluminum vs. glass beverage containers). Knowing these relative magnitudes would allow individuals to make more informed choices regarding energy-saving behaviors.

—Attari et al.

Mean perceptions of energy used for automobile-related activities (A), and saved via modes of transporting goods (B). Source: Attari et al. and Click to enlarge.

Previous studies have indicated that if Americans switched to better household and vehicle technologies, US 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% more energy than making an aluminum one—and 2,000% 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, modest mileage improvements to very low-mileage vehicles will save far more gasoline 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.

Many people’s concerns about energy are simply not strong enough, relative to their other concerns, to warrant learning about energy conservation. Although it may be appropriate to criticize the media for not presenting the case for climate change more strongly and for not presenting the implications of individual behavior more clearly , scientists share at least some of the responsibility for the current state of affairs. For example, Fischhoff recently argued that scientists may have failed the public by not providing information in a credible and comprehensible manner to facilitate better climate-related decisions. In addition to improved communication efforts, increasing fossil fuel prices to reflect the true environmental costs of CO2 emissions would also provide strong incentives for learning and behavior change.

Research has demonstrated that successful risk communication requires an understanding of people’s knowledge gaps and misconceptions, and the same is likely to be true for communications about energy. The results of this study imply that well designed efforts to increase the public’s knowledge of energy use and savings could be quite beneficial, although we hasten to add that providing appropriate information is only one component of a successful intervention strategy and that other barriers to individual emissions reductions must also be addressed.

Recent research indicates that investments in non–price-based behavioral interventions can be effective in decreasing energy use. However, many campaigns have focused on behaviors that save relatively small amounts of energy, such as unplugging one’s cell phone charger, whereas other more effective behaviors have been neglected. So long as people lack easy access to accurate information about relative effectiveness, they may continue to believe they are doing their part to reduce energy use when they engage in low-effort, low-impact actions instead of focusing on changes that would make a bigger difference. If people are uninformed, the substantial potential of behavioral interventions to reduce energy consumption may go unrealized. It is therefore vital that public communications about climate change also address misconceptions about energy consumption and savings, so that people can make better decisions for their pocketbooks and the planet.

—Attari et al.


  • Shahzeen Z. Attari, Michael L. DeKay, Cliff I. Davidson, and Wändi Bruine de Bruin (2010) Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings. PNAS Early Edition doi: 10.1073/pnas.10015091 ,



I'm not surprised. Clean Energy, one of the major problems facing USA (and many other countries) is not often mentioned in modern USA school books.

Energy saving and driving smaller cars is un-American.

The majority believes that it is some kind of socialistic, communistic, anti free enterprise, anti democratic plot. That's how well informed we are.


Americans need to start teaching the true benefits of recycling, energy and water conservation in Kindergarten through 12th grade in the public school system, only then will it make a difference. I personally have tried with Middle School and High School students, in their minds they have more important issues that need to be addressed.


I would imagine this applies to all nationalities, not just Americans.
Though Americans are probably worse in terms of per capita energy usage.
The UK (and Ireland) spent a lot of time telling people to unplug their phone chargers.
Also energy is too cheap - people do not get hit i the wallet or they would take action.
In the absence of pricing feedback, energy saving is a hobby for some people and ignored by the rest.
Fuel is about 2-3x more expensive in Europe (and has been for some time) and so people do drive smaller and more economical cars than the US.
But they are no worse off.

Michael Cain

No real surprise. As the article notes, efficiency improvements for individuals require investments: new car, new appliances, improvements in housing. It would be interesting to know how the survey questions were phrased. If they had the tone of "What can you do now to save energy?" you get one set of answers. If "What can you do over the course of several years to be more energy efficient?" you might get a different set.

With some exceptions for bulk commodities, the railroads no longer provide scheduled freight service, which plays havoc with current just-in-time inventory practices. A large-scale shift to rail requires that either (1) the railroads go back to providing scheduled service, which will reduce their energy efficiency (the train runs even if there are only a dozen cars to haul) or (2) businesses absorb the cost of expanded inventories needed to offset the unscheduled nature of rail transport.


LanceK, if you read the article it notes that making a bottle from recycled glass uses 2000% MORE energy than from virgin glass.

Lowering energy consumption goes hand in hand with cogent REASONS to do so. The biggest REASONS for Americans and others are fourfold:

1) Economic - addiction to foreign oil costs $$Billions
2) National Security - domestic energy = independence
3) JOBS - domestic energy grows JOBS
4) Environment - less coal = cleaner air/environment

Unplugging cell phones is a symbolic gesture. Buying EVs, Residential Combined Heat and Power units, Energy Star appliances and insulation are FAR more effective.

We have the opportunity to make great headway with PHEVs and distributed CHP units in residences and small business. Electrified transportation and home solar/CHP distributed energy would cut consumption by nearly one third.

What we are finally acknowledging is climate has failed to communicate. Economics, national security and clean air do a far better, simpler job.


MC: Those are not major challenges to solve. Correcting past mistakes is not very popular because we have to admit that we are not as perfect as we think we are. Moving from trains to trucks and buses was not that smart in the first place. Going from planes to very high speed trains may be beyond our ability. Wonder what The Goracle would say.


Americans Have a Very Poor Understanding of Reality!


Many Americans have but the collectivity....... is not there yet?


Reel$$: The article is confusing. Is it 2000% more energy for recycled glass than virgin glass or 2000% more energy for virgin glass than recycled aluminum?

I am guessing the latter....


Aluminium requires many times (xx??) more energy than glass.


Americans care about energy costs instead of energy cleanliness. When "clean" energy is cheaper than "dirty" energy, it will be adopted on a large scale. For me, I have no problem paying extra money every month during the summer for dirty evil coal generated electricity to keep my thermostat at 70 instead of 75 degrees...I have zero guilt and couldn't care less what the enviro kooks & quacks think - most of them would call my energy practices "wasteful". I am glad there is a supplier of energy out there willing to accomodate my demand in our free market system. If the government were to dictate what thermostats should be set at in our homes, there would be a revolution.

The Goracle


"Survey Finds Many Americans Have a Very Poor Understanding of Energy Use and Savings"

You're telling me!!! Al Gore, the Globalwarmist, religious fanatic, titular head, owns MULTIPLE mansions, jets around the world in private jets, and is chauffeured to and fro in gas guzzling limousines. By action, the least of his concerns is energy savings.

If you want people to use your preferred form of energy make it competitive rather then forcing people to use it via dictates from government bureaucracies.

Simply because one hates a form of energy does not mean that said fanatic should force his or her religious beliefs on others.

Praise be to Algore.



eff: You may have (major) problems to adapt to electrified vehicles, ultra high speed trains, variable LED lighting, lower power consumption e-books, better built residences using 2/3 less energy, ultra high efficiency heat pumps/HVAC, lower power consumption 3DTV, 3D-Cameras, membrane less speakers, Solar panel windows, smokeless world, solar powered robots, battery lawn mowers, boats, tools, etc.


Goracle: I agree that there is no glory (and there shouldn't be) in wasting energy. However, essential energy should come from clean sustainable sources such as Hydro, Sun, Wind, Waves, Geothermal and Nuclear etc. Limited dirty fossil energies should be used with parsimony to reduce negative effects on our health and on the environment.

Clean energies potential is many times what is needed.



I did say the true benefits about recycling.
Which arent always so energy efficent.

Nat Pearre

Reel$$: "if you read the article it notes that making a bottle from recycled glass uses 2000% MORE energy than from virgin glass."

Read again. The chart (Fig. 2C) in the document clearly shows that energy used for recycled glass is less than energy used for virgin glass. I think you are referring to the difference in energy for a glass bottle vs. recycled aluminum can. Here is the text from the document describing the chart:

"As shown in Fig. 2C, participants correctly reported that making
a can or bottle from virgin aluminum or glass requires more energy
than making the same container from recycled materials. However,
they incorrectly reported that making a glass bottle requires
less energy than making an aluminum can. In fact, the reverse is
true: A glass bottle requires 1.4 times as much energy as an aluminum
can when virgin materials are used and 20 times as much
energy when recycled materials are used. In part because glass is so heavy, making a recycled glass bottle actually requires more energy than making a virgin aluminum can."


I am building a new house at 7,000 feet in West Wyoming. I had my heart set on geo-thermal heat with radient floors. So much so, that I spent $50,000 to get electricity run to my home. I found out that dealers want another $50K to put geo-thermal in, and that isn't counting radient heat.

I'm very dissappointed.

Kit P

I wonder what the results would be if they asked Americans if the thought college researchers doing this kind of research were idiots.

I love my big utility that uses lots and lots of coal so that I can set the thermostat just where it makes my wife happy for about a $1/day.

What is a good night's sleep worth on a hot humid night? About two sips of a double low fat latte cappuccino.

“increasing fossil fuel prices to reflect the true environmental costs of CO2 emissions”

The true environmental cost is zero.


Who cares?
They don't have to know.
US solves that easily by sending its military to attack and invade energy rich countries, and/or installs puppet regimes in countries of interest.
At the same time US can print dollars in unlimited quantities, and other countries have to use it.

Kit P

“$50K to put geo-thermal in”

Lucas look for a gasifying wood boiler that that can use propane as a backup. Very clean and efficient! If you design your house correctly (thermal mass and natural ventilation) you should not need AC in the summer at 7000 feet. If you do not need AC, radiant heat is the way to go for low cost comfortable winter heat.

I had a different kind of boiler but a neighbor had the fancy one that was a few thousand more. If you do not know much about wood heating your new neighbors will help clue you in. My incentive to learn follow when my new neighbor asking if the realtors failed disclose that the oil truck could not get in in the winter.


The problem isnt the car buyer or the ac user its the people like this who cant shut up and listen to drivers and home owners.

Since this is impossible for such people we can be assured they will fail forever.


MG, you solved the problem. Cut the budget by $100 Billion a year by pulling out of the Middle East and Oil trade lanes. Oil goes up to it's real price, other fossil fuels follow. Then people will learn about energy usage.

When gas hit $4 a gallon, people started moving to the city, carpooling, riding mass transit, and selling off SUV's. That tells me they do understand energy use and savings, with a little incentive.

Account Deleted

An old known data: making a ton of recycled glass saves 250 kg of fuel oil compared with a ton of virgin glass.


"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;"

The example then illustrates the egregious misperception.

Overindulgence in parsimony will only hasten introduction of truly disruptive energy technology - potentially causing major economic and social upheaval.

Greens need to accept that the unity energy bottle can be uncorked at any time now. But by working TOGETHER, to educate the human population on the benefits of sustainability in an nonpolitical way, we can all reach mutually desired goals.

This means meeting the reasoned needs for energy and finance from sustainability leaders (excluding Mr. gore.)

A wise man once said, you attract more bees with pollen than with vinegar.

Roger Pham

This article made a great point, and this research points toward changing school curriculum to reflect the changing times and changing climates. From elementary school thru college, there should be required courses on environmental preservation, energy conservation, and AGW, as prerequisite for graduation.

We are all riding together in this Titanic, and if and when the boat takes in sea water, everyone must learn what to do. Voters cannot make informed decision as who to vote for, if they are largely uninformed. It is very regrettable that Al Gore was not elected as President in 2000 election, thus wasting 8 years of precious time to salvage the USA. We could be having a lot of green jobs now, with a budget surplus and very low unemployment, instead of a bankrupting government, double-digit unemployment, and millions of people about to run out of unemployment benefits...a generation of young people with little to look forward to the future except more unemployment and hopelessness...

Praise be to Al Gore!

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