Thinking Tech

Why we have trouble saving energy

Why we have trouble saving energy

Posting in Education

We underestimate -- by a lot -- how much we use.

A group of scientists and engineers recruited 505 people off craigslist to answer questions about how much energy they use and how much they think they are saving when they try to conserve.

The result? We think we save way more energy than we do. That's partly because we don't know how much energy activities take -- and the more energy that's consumed, the worse our guesses are.

People overestimate, for instance, the impact of turning off lights versus replacing their bulbs with more energy efficient ones.They underestimate how much energy is used by large appliances (adjusting your washer's settings actually saves more energy than turning off your dryer and hanging out your clothes).  People also believe, incorrectly, that an aluminum can takes more energy to make than a glass bottle. A glass bottle requires 1.4 times as much energy as a can -- and 20 times more energy if it's made out of recycled materials.

Environmentalists tend to be better than others at knowing how much energy they use or save, but their estimates are still off.

These results worry the scientists, they write this week in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, because if we all took a few simple actions -- like using compact fluorescent light bulbs instead of incandescent bulbs, and not letting our cars idle -- we could cut energy use in the U.S. by 30 percent.

That in turn would help the rest of the world, since the U.S. generates more greenhouse gasses right now than any other country. We're responsible for 21 percent of the world's carbon dioxide, the scientists say.

Below is their paper. Parts of it won't make sense if you don't know statistics, but it's worth skimming and reading the parts that you do understand. They call for massive public education so Americans have enough information to start taking energy seriously and do things that can truly cut how much we consume.

Energy

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure