Many Americans believe they can save energy with small behaviorchanges that actually achieve very little, and severely underestimatethe major effects of switching to efficient, currently availabletechnologies, says a new survey of Americans in 34 states. The study, which quizzed people on what they perceived as the most effective way to save energy, appears in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The largest group, nearly 20 percent, cited turning off lights as the best approach—an action that affects energy budgets relatively little.Very few cited buying decisions that experts say would cut U.S. energyconsumption dramatically, such as more efficient cars (cited by only 2.8 percent), more efficient appliances (cited by 3.2 percent) orweatherizing homes (cited by 2.1 percent). Previous researchers haveconcluded that households could reduce their energy consumption some 30percent by making such choices—all without waiting for new technologies, making big economic sacrifices or losing their sense of well-being.
Shahzeen Attari, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the university’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, said multiple factors probably are driving the misperceptions. “Whenpeople think of themselves, they may tend to think of what they can dothat is cheap and easy at the moment,” she said. On a broader scale, she said, even after years of research, scientists, government, industryand environmental groups may have “failed to communicate” what they know about the potential of investments in technology; instead, they havefunded recycling drives and encouraged actions like turning off lights.In general, the people surveyed tend to believe in what Attari callscurtailment. “That is, keeping the same behavior, but doing less of it,” she said. “But switching to efficient technologies generally allows you to maintain your behavior, and save a great deal more energy,” shesaid. She cited high-efficiency light bulbs, which can be kept on allthe time, and still save more than minimizing the use of low-efficiencyones.
Previous studies have indicated that if Americans switched to betterhousehold and vehicle technologies, U.S. energy consumption woulddecline substantially within a decade. Some of the highest-impactdecisions, consistently underrated by people surveyed, include drivinghigher-mileage vehicles, and switching from central air conditioning toroom air conditioners. In addition to turning off lights, overratedbehaviors included driving more slowly on the highway or unpluggingchargers and appliances when not in use. In one of the more egregiousmisperceptions, according to the survey, people commonly think thatusing and recycling glass bottles saves a lot of energy; in fact, making a glass container from virgin material uses 40 percent moreenergy than making an aluminum one—and 2,000 percent more when recycledmaterial is used.
Many side factors may complicate people’s perceptions. For instance,those who identified themselves in the survey as pro-environment tendedto have more accurate perceptions. But people who engaged in moreenergy-conserving behaviors were actually less accurate—possibly areflection of unrealistic optimism about the actions they personallywere choosing to take. On the communications end, one previous study from Duke University has shown that conventional vehiclemiles-per-gallon ratings do not really convey how switching from onevehicle to another affects gas consumption (contrary to popularperception, if you do the math, modest mileage improvements to verylow-mileage vehicles will save far more gas than inventing vehicles that get astronomically high mileage). Also, said Attari, people typicallyare 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, andattention begins to fade. Behavior researchers call this the“single-action bias.” “Of course we should be doing everything we can.But if we’re going to do just one or two things, we should focus on thebig energy-saving behaviors,” said Attari. “People are still not awareof what the big savers are.”