Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings

ResearchBlogging.orgThere are two quick and fairly easy approaches to reducing US emissions of CO2 by several percent. These reduction would be at the household level, possibly decreasing the household cost of energy by between 20 and 30 percent (or more, depending on the household) and decreasing national total CO2 emissions by around 10% or so.

But these approaches are nearly impossible to implement. Why? Because people are ignorant and selfish.

The two methods are: 1) Replace existing technologies with more efficient ones and 2) Use energy less. I’m not talking about replacing technologies at a fundamental level. I’m talking about replacing your wasteful light bulbs with energy efficient light bulbs. I’m talking about, if you are a two car family, figuring out how to replace one of your two SUV’s with an energy efficient vehicle. You’ll still have one vehicle available to tow around your boy toys and load with groceries, and you have the person doing the longest daily commute use the gas-sipping hybrid. That sort of thing. Regarding using less energy, that would include turning off the lights in rooms you are not in, walking or stair climbing instead of driving or elevating, that sort of thing.

Pop Quiz:
Given these two basic approaches, which we’ll call Efficiency (E) vs. Curtailment (C), which is better? In other words, consider this thought experiment: Divide all of the potential household energy use reduction activities into two lists, C and E. Then, each of one thousand households is assigned a randomly chosen C, and each of a second one thousand households is assigned a randomly chosen E, which group would realize the largest percentage of household energy use reduction? (Of course, there would be a third sample of one thousand households given a placebo to take three times a day.)

The answer should be obvious by inspecting the standard behavioral ecological model, α = λB – C. λ is efficiency (between 0 and 1.0), C is specific uses of energy, and B is your budget. You are trying to minimize α.

Obviously, it will depend on the magnitude of efficiency changes and how often you curtail a use. But overall, efficiency trumps curtailment. You SHOULD replace all your bulbs with compact florescent bulbs AND turn them off when you are not using them. But if you had top pick one, and you started out with a household of regular, inefficient bulbs, dropping back your use to 25% or less by replacing the old bulbs with CF’s (efficiency) will get you better savings than being compulsive about turning off the lights. Generally, the various things people can do to reduce energy use can be quantified, and then, people can be asked what they think the best thing to do might be. Then, we can look at the results and laugh at how truly ignorant the average person is. Then, when we are done laughing, we can cry because energy conservation has been on the table for decades and most people are still utterly clueless as to how to go about it. (And that doesn’t even count people simply being selfish, hoping others will solve this problem for them.)

And of course this is all demonstrated in a new OpenAccess study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study began with an open-ended survey question that asked participants to indicate the most effective thing they could do to conserve energy. Two judges identified 17 mutually exclusive categories of responses in an initial set of 40 surveys … and then independently coded the remaining responses. … We further classified these categories as curtailment actions (e.g., Turn off lights) or efficiency actions (e.g., Use efficient light bulbs) … Despite [the previously demonstrated] conclusion that efficiency-improving actions generally save more energy than curtailing the use of inefficient equipment, only 11.7% of participants mentioned efficiency improvements, whereas 55.2% mentioned curtailment as a strategy for conserving energy.


So people don’t get the basic logic that not using energy when you don’t need it is good, but that efficiency is really really good. This makes sense even if it is wrong, because people are accustom to deciding whether to do something or not, and very resistant to changing how they do something.

With respect to people’s perceptions of the amount of energy used and saved:

Each participant estimated the energy used by nine devices and appliances and the energy saved by six household activities, with the energy used by a 100-W incandescent light bulb in 1h provided as a reference point. For each participant, we assessed the correlation between these perceptions and actual energy use and savings (as determined from the literature), after transforming both distributions with base-10 logarithms to reduce positive skew. The mean correlation between log10Perception and log10Actual was r = 0.51 [t(488) = 36.34, P < 0.0001, η2 = 0.70], indicating that participants had significant (but imperfect) knowledge of which devices and activities were associated with greater energy use and savings.

This is promising, but not as promising as it looks, because it turns out that people’s overestimate of how much energy will be saved increase with the total amount of energy used. People are pretty close in estimating the amount of energy a CF light bulb will save over a regular light bulb. But people seem to think that an efficient dishwasher, air conditioner, or clothes dryer will save a LOT more energy than is actually the case.

People overestimate the value of driving slowly in their car and underestimate getting a tune up twice a year. They do seem to properly estimate the value of getting a more efficient car. (The fact that they don’t, well, that’s the part about being selfish, I suppose.)

The authors conclude:

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. … 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)…

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). … It may not require much insight to realize that a major appliance (of any variety) uses more energy than a single light bulb (be it incandescent or ï¬?uorescent) or that tuning one’s car saves more energy in a year than reducing one’s highway speed saves in an hour. Despite displaying some sensitivity to these and other differences, participants severely underestimated their magnitudes.

… participants with higher numeracy scores had more accurate perceptions … Participants with stronger proenvironmental attitudes were also more accurate. Even so, participants who scored high on both measures still had relatively [little understanding] … Unexpectedly, participants who engaged more in energy-conserving behaviors had less accurate perceptions of energy use and savings, possibly reï¬?ecting unrealistic optimism about the effectiveness of their personal energy-saving strategies compared with alternative ones …

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.

… increasing fossil fuel prices to reï¬?ect the true environmental costs of CO2 emissions would … provide strong incentives for learning and behavior change.

Attari, S., DeKay, M., Davidson, C., & Bruine de Bruin, W. (2010). From the Cover: Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (37), 16054-16059 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1001509107

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64 thoughts on “Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings

  1. There are two quick and fairly easy approaches to reducing US emissions of CO2 by several percent….But these approaches are nearly impossible to implement.

    You have a very, very strange definition of “fairly easy”.

  2. Something that occurred to me reading that, and which might explain the skew in the perceptions of people who are more interested in green-ness: if you already do most of the efficiency improvements, all that’s left is curtailment. For instance, my house has loft insulation, double glazing, thick curtains, etc. All that’s left is wearing two sweaters and turning the heating down. Similarly, our car is relatively efficient and serviced regularly, so the only targets for improvement are the mileage and speed. The emphasis on incandescent lightbulbs is particularly baffling – my whole extended family got rid of the last of theirs five or so years ago.

  3. There are a number of people posting on other blogs who see the phase out of incandescent bulbs as a very bad thing. CFLs produce and evil color that they can’t stand. Actually one should look at the duty cycle of a bulb in consideration. If a bulb is on for 5 mins and off 6 hours it really does not make much difference in savings. It is bulbs in lights on timers and the like that make a big difference.
    Yet how many know that if you run a modern dishwasher on the light cycle it takes less energy and water than doing the dishes by hand? (5.2 Gals on that cycle typically)
    One idea is to offer a big rebate if you retire/trade in a fridge or freezer older than 1980 since they are so much more efficient than back then.
    I suspect what we see here is allied to the misperception of risk in society,where rare events are seen as more common than they are.

  4. You have a very, very strange definition of “fairly easy”.

    Not at all. Next time you buy light bulbs buy the CF’s and use them where you can. Next time you leave a room, click off the lights. Next time you buy a car, make mileage a factor in your decision making. Find out if your car commute can be replaced with a care free bus ride.

    If you think these things are not fairly easy for most people, perhaps you fall into the “Cynical Selfish” category? Just sayin’

    CFLs produce and evil color that they can’t stand.

    The one’s I’ve got produce a color that is pretty much the same as sunlight. I’d hardly call that an evil color. I’ve heard that excuse before but it is bullshit.

    Actually one should look at the duty cycle of a bulb in consideration. If a bulb is on for 5 mins and off 6 hours it really does not make much difference in savings. It is bulbs in lights on timers and the like that make a big difference.

    That could be true, but it is also true that this sort of logic can be very self defeating. “I will only do the thing that is very close to the most efficient of all possible things” logic, I call it. Again, more bullshit (in many cases).

    I put a CF bulb in a place we almost never, ever use lightbulbs. I put it there five years ago. It will be there for the next 20 years. This is not a bad thing, it is a good thing.

    Yet how many know that if you run a modern dishwasher on the light cycle it takes less energy and water than doing the dishes by hand?

    Have you noticed that when you tell people this they don’t believe you? Hell, even the non-minimal cycle may be more energy (including water) efficient than some hand washing jobs.

    Unless you are my inlaws. They wash all the dishes before they put them in the dishwasher.

    One idea is to offer a big rebate if you retire/trade in a fridge or freezer older than 1980 since they are so much more efficient than back then.

    There is an appliance cash for clunkers program, I think. Yes, this is a good idea.

    It was one estimated in California, and this is probably only half apocryphal, that the cost of building a particular new Nuke plant (on a fault, of course) was X to produce energy Y, but the cost of buying everyone in the use area a new fridge (not just a rebate, but a new fridge, and this was when they were just starting to get efficient) was 0.8X to realize an energy savings of 1.2Y … more or less.

  5. For air conditioners (and gas/oil heaters), the new ones are pretty much all alike; the *huge* saving to be made there is to insulate your house properly (a horribly expensive exercise); this can save you quite a few hundred $ through winter and summer.

    As for lighting, I’m looking forward to improved and affordable LED lighting. I figured for about $30k I could have a solar/battery/LED lighting system to keep a 3-bedroom house totally lit for 14 hours (with an assumption of a maximum 3 crappy days of weather in a row). However, at $30K I’d be hoping I don’t get huge hailstones in my area and it will still take several decades before I’ve saved any money on electricity (if ever) – I didn’t figure in some items such as battery replacement. I’m also not keen on houses in general having such a huge battery; it is an extreme fire hazard at the very least. Anyway, LED lighting will be far more efficient than fluorescent lighting; not quite like going from incandescent to fluorescent, but huge (~50% less power consumed for the same brightness + color balance).

    I don’t buy the dishwasher myth; besides the machine often does an absolutely crappy job of washing even when people don’t leave crud to dry out on the dishes. If you’re using more water than a dishwasher to wash and rinse, I can’t imagine what the hell you’re doing. As for the “energy saving” of using a dishwasher, that’s pure nonsense. We’re talking about cutting use of electricity here, not KW power consumed by a motor vs. KCal consumed by someone washing dishes. Besides, people probably need more such exercise.

  6. MadScientist: I think the ORIGINAL argument with dishwashers was in terms of water amount used, but this can extend. The water is heated, and even cold tap water from the faucet uses energy, how much depending on where you live. Your not liking the idea does not close the issue.

  7. you might want to notice that getting rid of dishwashers and clothes driers means a lot more work for busy moms.

    Now, if you wash and hang up your clothes and the clothing of your kids after an eight to ten hour shift on your feet, fine. If not, butt off.

    Dishes are a bit easier: the kids have to do them or they eat off of paper plates…

  8. When I was a kid my parents bought the first dishwasher my grandfather had ever seen. He was a cantankerous old fart and always concerned about conserving water – more a concern in California where he lived than in Iowa where we lived. He was sure the machine was a terrible water waste. Grandma always had to wash by hand, which she did not enjoy.

    Our dishwasher was a rolling model that connected to the kitchen faucet, and discharged into the sink. So one time when he was visiting he carefully measured the water discharge from one complete cycle. Then somehow he measured how much water was used by washing the dishes by hand. Dishwasher used about 2/3 as much as hand-washing. Not long after our long-suffering grandmother received a dishwasher. That would have been about 1964 I think.

    Modern dishwashers probably use even less water, but I bet they still use a lot of energy. We make sure ours is really full before we run it, and it does a great job. And we don’t use the forced dryer, we just open the door and let it air-dry.

    People still use incandescent bulbs?

  9. On furnaces they now come in two flavors 80% and 90% efficient. In the south the 80% version makes economic sense, in the north if you have a drain a 90% version makes sense (these furnaces condense the water in the gasses). On new ac units (central) the SEER rating ranges from 13 to 23. Older units may be as low as 7-9 (particularly if the unit is approaching end of life).
    Now one simple way to save energy is cold water clothes washing, with the right soap.

  10. Our house is currently lit mostly by 9W CFL downlights. Just replaced ten of them with 3W LEDs. At ~$8 each they’re cheaper than the CFLs in the GU10 format, and I’m very impressed by the light output and quality. I know that technically they’re not as bright, but honestly they feel brighter than even the 50W halogens that were above the kitchen counter (because the CFLs were too long to fit in the pendants). I think I’m going to do the rest of the house now…

  11. Greg, I am very confused by your response to my comment. If CF bulbs, turning lights off, and riding the bus are so easy, why are they “nearly impossible to implement”? Maybe it is your definition of “nearly impossible to implement” that seems off. One way or the other, I can’t wrap my head around the idea that there are easy things that are impossible to do.

    If you want, I suppose, you could dismiss my comment by the ad hominem declaration that I may be in some “Cynical Selfish” category. That way you don’t have to respond on the substance.

  12. Curt, you have missed the point by several miles.

    Switching what kind of light bulb you use next time you pick them up at the store is incredibly easy. Getting everyone to go along with doing that is a policy or strategy that is incredibly difficult. Thus, our interest in this issue.

    You are implying that the fact that this policy is hard to implement (getting people to conserve on their own) literally means that switching light bulbs, or turning off a light switch are procedurally or physically difficult things to do. That is not how causality works in this particular universe.

    I withdraw the allegedly ad hominem statement: It was a logical assertion that was based on my guess that you personally find switching off a light to save the planet beyond what you are willing to do. That still may be true, but now I’m thinking you’re maybe an alien or something? Which, and I know this is pedantic and all but whatever, rules out the ad hominem issue, does it not?

  13. Many of us ordinary folks would love to have solar panels, electric cars, and LED lighting, but don’t because we don’t have the CASH. True. Which is easier: laying out thousands of dollars plus interest for an efficient car, or driving the paid-off one we already have? Paying $6 for a CF light bulb or 60 cents for a replacement bulb we might not even need for months? I insulated my walls last year and am still recovering from the cost. All the windows in our new rooms are double-paned and insulated, but we just don’t have the cash to replace existing windows, although we have the desire to save on energy bills and save the earth as well.

    It’s not always selfishness.

  14. A friend of mine was buying a car a while back, right after the price of fuel went from 5 dollars (or whatever) per gallon back down to around 2. She was looking at two cars, she liked them both, and one got less than 15 miles per gallon, the other better than 25. Her father said “well, now that the price of fuel is back to normal, it does not matter which one you get”

    The relatively easy part of that is to not be utterly stupid about the price of fuel, to realize that the price will fluctuate again in the future AND it is not all about the price of fuel but the health of the planet, and to simply insert into your decision matrix fuel efficiency.

    IT is NOT easy to just go out and buy a new car that is energy efficient. (Unless you happen to have piles of cash.) I had a very inefficient car for a long time because it is the one I got in the divorce. Then there was the other car and the other ‘divorce’. Etc. In other words, I’ve rarely had the personal chance to actually make the decision of what car I own. If I had the choice now, I’d have a hybrid, but I don’t.

    But, last time we needed to get rid of a car we had run into the ground, we went for a good, used, fuel efficient alternative, and at the time figured out how we would make our next car a hybrid.

    Selfishness is, in fact, coming to the point that one convinces one’s self that it is too hard to buy a light bulb that in the long run costs the same (because they last longer) or to even think about fuel efficiency becasue we can’t buy a hybrid tomorrow, and to conclude from that that no one should ever feel even the slightest socio-cultural or personal pressure to be less than utterly stupid about these decisions. Making that one choice “Oh, it is too haarrrrd!!!” is the selfish decision. The rest is easy after that, and the planet chokes to death.

    Personally, I need to buy a new house in a new nieghborhood so I can get rid of one car and make the other car a hybrid. I’ve been working on that plan for five years. The real estate bubble and getting laid off have made it impossible so far, but it is still the plan. I’m not going to turn around and say “It’s too haaarrrd” and never think about it again. I’d prefer to keep the ways in which I’m personally destroying the environment in sight at all times and just feel really bad about myself all the time.

    Hey, wait a minute…

    Anyway, I don’t think you’re suggesting giving up on it all, Miss C, and I totally agree that we can’t make every decision whenever we want to, but I think it is too easy for people to simply make the argument that there is nothing one can do, or to convince themselves (my friends’ father, above) of the dumbest things for essentially selfish reasons.

  15. And another thing!

    The point of the article is that people don’t KNOW what the thing they should do is. So, even if people had the choice between possible options they would not necessarily optimize because of a lack of knowledge. Well, a lack of knowledge mixed with a lot of misinformation.

  16. Curt F.,

    One of the issues is whether people will do what’s actually pretty easy—like buying CF bulbs next time—or stick to their old habits, out of inertia, misplaced skepticism, and gullibility. (E.g., suckers like Black Market Lighbulb Salesman, who’s been listening to too much Glen Beck or something.)

    A lot of people are resistant to trying CF bulbs, for example, because they think they’d care about the difference, when in fact they likely wouldn’t notice. They’re also not informed and rational about the price—CF bulbs cost more at the store, but are less expensive in the long run. One reason that they’re not rational is because of ideologues making it a “freedom vs. socialism” issue.

    I’m lucky that the city I live in subsidizes the purchase of CF bulbs—the city distributes coupons to stores, which give an instant discount. They do that partly because it’s a moderately progressive town that actually does some socially responsible things, and partly because it’s pretty good policy anyhow. (The city is growing and if people use less energy per capita, we don’t have to invest as much tax money in building new power plants and such.)

    Some places, that just isn’t going to happen because of the dumbass “Omigod it’s Socialist HELL!!!” crowd. They’d rather pay more for less, because they’re utterly paranoid about *government* “telling people what to do” in obvious ways.

    A basic fact that dopes like BMLB Salesman overlook is that the government is setting policy no matter how you slice it, and the government is going to control what things “cost,” by trading off different costs, moving costs around, and squandering things that somebody has to foot the bill for, in a less obvious way, or after the current crew is out of office.

    What we’re doing now is really subsidizing incandescent lighting, SUV’s, etc., by paying a trillion bucks in military expenditures and various sorts of collateral damage to keep oil “cheap” in terms of the obvious consumer prices. God in his infinite wisdom put our cheap oil, which we have a God-given right to, under other people’s goddamn sand, and much of what our government does is really to pay through the nose, with our money, to keep that oil “cheap.” (Likewise, God in his infinite wisdom put our atmosphere, which we have a god given right to pollute, all over the goddamn planet. This makes us rather unpopular with people downwind, which is everybody. We’ll pay for that too.)

    Incandescent bulbs, poorly insulated houses, inefficient appliances, and SUV’s are “the terrorists”‘ favorite tools—the keep us vulnerable to foreign interests, many of them rather dodgy—and shitheads like BMLB Salesman are tools, too. They’d rather pay more for government policies, indirectly, and much more down the line, than pay the government directly, because they’re ignorant tools who have no clue how the world really works. If the government subsidizes a cost-effective lightbulb to get people to actually do what they would do anyhow if they were smart, that’s Socialist HELL!!! Hyeesh, what a bunch of kooky crybabies.

    The effect is that they’re defending a worse sort of “socialism”—a more fascistic one—to fight so-called “socialism.” Socialism is okay as long as it’s the right-wing kind, about armies and foreign resource extraction, and rich people’s right to do whatever the fuck they want whatever the cost to others, rather than the “left wing” kind, about investing in other things so as to not need so much of that really expensive crap.

  17. They do that partly because it’s a moderately progressive town that actually does some socially responsible things,

    Actually, I live in a highly conservative right wing socially and politically backwards town and the city does some CF subsidies as well as an excellent recycling program. The yahoos who are anti-saving the planet are becoming more rare these days!

  18. Miss Cellania:

    It’s not always selfishness.

    Right. It’s often bad government policy.

    Rental housing is typically poorly insulated and uses cheap inefficient air conditioning and appliances. The landlady doesn’t have much motivation to insulate and upgrade, because she doesn’t pay the utility bills. She’d be happy to upgrade and raise the rent correspondingly, but since consumers are uninformed and/or stupid about such things, it’s better for her to keep the rents lower and the utility bills higher. She’ll be punished if she does the right thing.

    Likewise, the glut of SUV’s is a disaster. The government actually subsidized the SUV trend, by classing SUV’s as trucks, and taxing them lower.

    (Trucks were taxed lower because it was assumed that most would be used for work, e.g., by contractors. When the SUV fad took off, and it was clear SUVs were being used as regular cars, they still weren’t taxed as cars; the government *subsidized* their energy inefficiency.)

    Unfortunately, poorer people shopping for used vehicles that are energy efficient are pretty well screwed. Rich people can afford to get a new generation of car, but poor people get to drive the rich people’s old guzzlers, because that’s mostly what’s available on the used car market.

    That’s just stupid, stupid, and stupid, and it is largely due to right-wing and corporate interests opposing reasonable policies that would make fuel and car prices reflect the true costs of fuel, including dependence on foreign oil and having to defend it militarily.

    By the way, everybody should be aware that CF bulbs shouldn’t cost $6 each anymore. You should be able to find a multi-pack at some place like Big Lots for a fraction of that price per bulb.

    Unfortunately, they’re often twice as expensive at the grocery store, and even more expensive in single-packs, so most people don’t notice that they can get CF’s at very reasonable prices now, even without a government subsidy. (And that’s partly thanks to short-term government subsidies to prime the pump and encourage mass production.)

  19. Greg, the charge against you of ad hominem is bogus. An ad hominem fallacy isn’t an insult per se, it’s a claim that the argument is false *because the other person is a liberal|oil executive|woman|alien|whatever. Concluding – correctly or otherwise – that he is something based on the argument presented is something else entirely.

    I suspect Curt is just a concrete thinker, and would have trouble with anyone saying something like “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.

  20. Another thing to consider for those too “poor” to buy CFLs: how much do you pay for electricity? Here, we currently pay around $0.15 per kWh. At that price, replacing a 60W bulb that’s used for 2 hours a day with a 10W CFL saves $5.50 a year on the power bill – and at that rate of use it should last at least eight years.

  21. “Light bulbs? I don;t worry. I have enough real light bulbs stockpiled to last the rest of my life. Then again, under capitalism, when the nazi light bulb ban of 2012 takes effect their value will go up tremendously.”

    So… Light Bulb Salesman. You think you’ll be able to get extra cash by selling folks light bulbs that are *more expensive to run? Do you *know that many ditto-heads?

  22. Kermit, I follow your thinking, but you are asking the question of the resident troll of a thousand names, who literally thinks internet polls should somehow be chaste. Seriously.

  23. Something not yet mentioned:

    Living in Oz, we already deal with very high gas prices (usually around US$4-5/gallon) and yes, morons driving either SUVs and/or high-performance V-8 cars are depressingly common-as is their constant whining about the price of fuel…

    I drive a motorcycle, and laugh at the gas pumps.

    Seems to be growing in popularity too-the local riding school is already booked out until about mid-December.

  24. (It should be..) Needless to say, troll, that we already ran that experiment. The “free market” *did* “allow criminals like [corporate] thugs [deflate] labor prices to [use the savings to] pay for luxury vacations and gold [coins to swim in like Scrooge McDuck].”

    The truly free, deregulated market does not have a role for corporations, its every man for himself. Unfortunately, the industrial revolution made that impractical. Economies of scale require that we allow capital to conglomerate, forming alliances we call corporations. Basic fairness (and empirical observation, we tried without and it was an incredible failure, poke around in some history books) suggests that we balance the conglomeration so created by allowing labor to form similar alliances.

    Are some unions, and some union officials, corrupt? Absolutely. The (mind-blowingly obvious) thing that you and your ilk are missing is that some corporations and some corporate officials are corrupt too.

    If you were a true libertarian, (near-)anarchist, advocate of returning to the “state of nature” free market, you would be spending a few paragraphs explaining the need to dissolve all corporations, get the government out of the business of creating fictional persons and of overseeing alliances of capital, and stop giving preferential liability treatment to corporations which are unavailable to actual persons (this liability limit being perhaps *the* defining feature of incorporation).


    What’s that? Want to keep the corporations? Me too. Economies of scale dictate that we crucially need them. There’s no way we could feed all 7 billion of us (or even that fraction that we feed under the status quo) without them. But allowing unionization is part of the same package.

  25. I think the reason that we don’t get results in reducing energy consumptio is demonstrated in this article. Humans respond to reward/punishment. Breaking down efficiency, curtailment, etc. into specific products just confuses people. If the average citizen must learn about every last detail of this subject before changing their behavior, nothing will ever happen. If people were charged (steep)increasing rates $$ on usage, based on a REALISTIC need for energy, behavior would change; energy HOGS would be penalized for excessive use, including households, businesses, industry, AND government. Money is the number one value by which everything is assessed in the U.S. Let’s use it as a big stick…

  26. I sure hope the Black Market Lightbulb dude doesn’t find out that the revenue from compulsory CFL sales actually goes toward mandatory abortions, giving guns to criminals, persecuting Christians, and helping Teh Terrorists win. I hate America so much I’m installing extra sockets for MORE EVIL LIGHTBULBS!!! BWAH-HAH-HAH-HAH-HAH!!!

  27. “If people were charged (steep)increasing rates $$ on usage, based on a REALISTIC need for energy, behavior would change; energy HOGS would be penalized for excessive use, including households, businesses, industry, AND government. Money is the number one value by which everything is assessed in the U.S. Let’s use it as a big stick”

    How nice. Facsism at its best. Now do you know why i call you eco-nazis? This little stunt would get you arrested and sent to prison for fraud and extortion. I have an idea. Why don’t we charge extra for abortions. Say, $100,000,000 per abortion? Then there will be less abortions. Is that your kind of thinking?

    I guess liberals care the most about the environment when they set fire to Hummers and BP oil rigs eh? Yeah. i said it. BP oil spill was not an accident. Some eco-nazi managed to blow the thing sky high to get rid of offshore oil rigs. Meanwhile Mexico and Brazil continue to drill deeper than BP in the ocean and no one says a word. Maybe it was a Soros funded eco-nazi that blew up BP in order to get Soros more money with his deep financial ties to Brazilian oil. Conspiracy? maybe. Truth? Very possible given the extreme violent and hateful nature of today’s modern environmentalist and liberal/commie.

  28. People aren’t stupid. They’ve just been flooded with skewed information — you can call it propaganda — most of their lives.

    Curtailment is the cultural standard, not because anyone’s stopped to think about it, but because it is the received wisdom of every generation alive today.

    I remember growing up in the 80s and hearing in elementary school about all the (C)-based actions we should be taking to save the Earth. I don’t recall ever being taught about efficiency modifications, and clearly there were some to think about — dishwashers were already more efficient than hand-washing.

    And where else would people be exposed to this information other than school? Let’s face it; it’s not the kind of info anyone goes out in search of. And the few who do, who learn, are going to be put into the role you are, Greg: evangelizing for Efficiency and wondering why people keep guilting themselves into making (or not-making) Curtailment changes instead.

    And when you have a generation of kids like me brought up toeing the Curtailment party line because they’ve never stopped to think about the Efficiency actions — because let’s face it, that’s not exactly bar discussion material — you end up with a cultural echo chamber for Curtailment.

    You’re fighting against received wisdom here. And received wisdom is far more powerful than logic, introspection, and reasoning, because it’s the tribal way human societies retain and spread knowledge.

    Only when the received wisdom becomes “(E) over (C)” will we see a greater percentage decrease in energy usage.

  29. I just wanted to pad my above point a little bit.

    Sesame Street’s “Being Green” special:

    Even just last year, this has been the cultural knowledge passed to the next generation: that “being green” means recycling and turning off the lights when you leave the room. You see exactly those popular responses on those survey results in the study.

    Granted, little kids’ shows can’t be expected to inform them of energy efficient washers and dryers.

    But I submit that these little bits of received wisdom are ALL that the vast majority of people get exposed to as “Energy Conservation 101”.

    Here’s another one for kids, sponsored by energy companies across North America and hyped by Nelly Furtado:

    It’s called “Turn Off the Lights”. Seeing a pattern now?

  30. I have some CFL bulbs in my house, but I haven’t completely switched over. From my own experience, some of the bulbs burn out in certain areas of the house not much longer than incandescent. Since I can’t toss them in the garbage because of the mercury in them, I keep them in zip lock bags in my house until the town has one of its special waste collection days.

  31. I started using CFLs when they cost upwards of $20 apiece and some of those are still working.

    I started switching to LEDs five years ago for anything I turn on and off frequently (do _not_ cycle fluorescents on and off a lot, it greatly reduces how long they last — any kind, whether the 4′ tubes or the little twisted ones).

    These are reasonably priced LEDs, white, you can cycle them on and off as often as you like:

    For night use if you don’t want to mess up your own or a baby’s or old person’s sleep cycle, use the amber ‘turtle safe’ ones — like these, which give you a ‘night light’ bright enough to read by and get around comfortably without disrupting sleep for anyone in the same room:

  32. On Dishwashers:

    The best dishwashers use 7 litres of water for washing 14 place settings â?? those place settings include serving pieces. I have to check the numbers, but from memory thatâ??s like 80 pieces of dishes and glasses and over a 100 pieces of cutlery. Studies show that handwashing doesnâ??t come anywhere close. Some people use more than 100 litres of water to wash the same amount. In terms of energy, a dishwasher pump uses little energy, the biggest amount goes into heating the water. Itâ??s heated electrically right where and when itâ??s needed, so efficiency is high. Itâ??s easy to make the comparision to energy used for water for washing by hand. Tap water benefits from being heated by gas and lower temperstures )

  33. Lots of discussion still going on about business/office refits with LEDs — hat tip to Axiomled where I found this pointer (discussion about cost and benefit, not a puff piece). It’s just starting to happen, and a lot of people are waiting on establishment of standards and interchangeable parts to be settled.

    My own experience is, the LEDs just now becoming available are good for individual lights at home
    — that get turned on and off frequently,
    — amber night light that doesn’t disrupt sleep,*
    — daytime ‘white’ (LEDs and fluorescents both emit strongly in the band that _keeps_ you awake and alert).


  34. Wonderful take-apart of the Home Depot lamp, here, pictures and sources figured out, construction analyzed:

    Bottom line: “Its overall design philosophy seems to be to increase reliability by reducing the parts count and thus the associated solder points.”

    Discussion thread there.

    Hat tip to the inimitable Candlepowerforums ‘Fixed Lighting’ section for the pointer to this one.

  35. greg:
    What? How can the average American thinks these newfangled light bulbs are expensive??? Are do american advertisement agencies hate light and refuse to make decent ads for anything related to lighting?

    I remember several ads that heavily based their campaign on how much you save in comparison. One very visal one showed how many old lightbulbs one CFL was the equivalent of. One side of the page a single CFL, and on the other side tons of light bulbs. (It was essentially like showing how many paper plates a porcelain or stainless steel plate corresponded to…. Anyone who would continue to use nothing but paper plates after such a fictional ad would either be an idiot or have very specific and unusual needs.)
    Mentioning stereotype life span lenths of the different types of bulbs in numbers only was otherwise common in ads too.
    That said, I only have one reason to be sad about the difficulty to find oldfashioned light bulbs. I have one table light with a narrow and mostly enclosed glass cover that was better at killing bugs than the fly paper, on top of giving light and a little heat. Now that the selection of cheap CFLs are of way better quality than in the past, I dont see how anyone with even just half a brain would be interested in old lightbulbs for their main lighting needs. EZ Bake ovens will still need lightbulbs for a while though, I think. I am under the impression old light bulbs are more economic than pure IR light bulbs, and eliminates the need to throw in an LED or so with the IR light bulb in the easy bake oven for lighting.

    Mr Hording Troll (or so I hope): Why should any government bother forcing people to use X or make it illegal for people to use X. Just making it illegal for ordinary megacorps/corporations to sell the stuff is all that is needed. Less effort involved for all parties involved, and still leaves room for individual creativity as well as for letting valid needs being met.

  36. Ok, all this talk of handwashing vs dishwashers brings a question to my mind.
    Do such comparisons take into effect the manufacturing “costs” of fabricating/shipping the dishwasher? How much water was used or polluted to make the dishwasher? How much energy was used to make the plastic, ship it to the manufacturer, mold it into dishwasher parts, put it all together and ship it to the store or house? And while it may not have as many corrosive elements as, say a computer, where do dishwashers go to die? And how cleanly do they perform that final act?

    All of that is *besides* the personal costs to owning one, the debt load that then makes other eco decisions harder because you’re (for a time) shelling out 100$ a month to SEARS for the pleasure of dishwashing automation. (or saving up 100$ a month, if you’re a more savvy shopper) I’m not in a place to do the math right now, but do the personal economics pan out if you’re balancing a few gallons of water per day against the initial outlay in cost for the piece of equipment?

    There’s also the issue of how a person handwashes, I try and re-use grey water when I’m washing dishes. The pasta water can clean the sauce pan, and then for a 3rd use I can water my veggies with it. A dishwasher, unless modified, only takes in clean water and puts the dirty down the sewer pipe, leaving less opportunities for water reuse.

    I think the argument is even more nuanced than your post suggests, and perhaps some people use slightly less efficient things for complex reasons, not just idiocy.

  37. Jennie,

    Good questions.

    First, you have to decide if water vs. energy is the key variable. It may depend on the region of the country.

    Then, as you suggest, all the costs should be consdiered as long as they are not likely very small with a high cost of measuring them or high uncertainty. So yes, one should consider:

    1) Energy and enviornmental costs of producing, shipping, installing, paying for the diswasher.

    2) Energy and environmental costs of producing and delivering the water. Where I live now, every gallon of water took X units of fossil fuel to get it from the deep wells up to the water towers, and processing the water is not free, thousands of miles of trenches dug with backhoes, manufactured pipes, etc. etc.

    3) The different cleaning compounds that are used. When diswhashers first went into use, a new kind of pollution was discovered (more or less) … phosphate … in wealthier suburban areas where everyone suddenly got one.

    Regarding greywater: People have been known to hook up their diswashers, sinks, and laundry to a different outlet to put the greywater through a leachfield and ultimately use it for watering the apple trees and stuff in their backyards.

    But no< i don't agree with your last statement. I'm not convinced at all that most people who are using the "wrong" thing (light bulb, car, appliance) have figured it all out and are doing just the right thing instead. Well you may be right if by "some people" you mean a very small percentage of people. But, this post is not about Rodale Press Symps and people living in Northhampton MA, but about the vast unwashed masses.

  38. That’s a good point about the “costs” of tap water, I’d be interested to see some comparisons between different water sources and how they compare in terms of fossil fuel used/gallon of tap water. (ground water vs river water that sort of thing)

    Thanks for the reply.

    Anyway, I understand the rant, but what another thing that always comes to my mind when reading stuff like this is, “What can we do about it?” Quite frankly I’m afraid in this case the answer is not much. You have to figure that the average reading level for American’s is 6th grade, (at least that’s a figure I’ve heard a lot.) If we assume their arithmetic skills are similar, at least half of them just plain won’t understand. They aren’t going to understand arguments about efficiency because it’s ‘fuzzier’ than simple C conversations about on or off. It also involves a bit of delayed gratification in terms of seeing the payoff for switching to more efficient appliances. Again, not a strong suit for most Americans. That’s terribly depressing to say, but there’re my thoughts.

  39. Here’s what we do. A few months back someone I know proudly said that she had no compact florescent light bulbs in her house because they didn’t fit in half her sockets and she hated the color and how much difference did they make anyway. A few of us pointed out that it would not make as much difference as driving her SUV or using all her fancy appliances, but it couldn’t hurt, and the options for high efficiency lighting were myriad, they fixed the color problem, and so on and so forth.

    Today, if you go to her house, most of the lights in the main living area are high efficiency LED’s. All she needed was to NOT receive social support for being a dumb-ass, and a bit of a nudge in the other direction.

    That’s the whole point of the skeptical movement. We skeptics don’t necessarily harass people for believing in bigfoot, but when someone openly declares that they do, we politely indicate that we don’t. Maybe we take it a half step farther than that. That’s all it takes to make most people think twice.

    To the masses, to make a point may require a rant. To a friend, to make a point may require nothing more than a look. Relatives, sometimes need to be tied down and tasered.

  40. You said something about greywater reuse!
    That’s all the excuse I need.

    I have a blog on which I’ve been broadcasting my recent obsession with this, including about a system that can recycle the water to where it can be reused for showers etc.

    By the way, you have to watch out for LED lights, manufacturers of the LED bulb assemblies typically use the leds well above their rated power output. This means they will not last anywhere near their 100k hours or whatever they are supposed to. Some fail after only 2000 hours!

    Sell me a CFL any day – and I’m afraid Mr. lightbulb salesman is going to be very disappointed in the return on the investment, because you can get CFLs that look and act just like an incandescent, dirty yellow light, instant on, and a frosted plastic globe over the glass tube.

  41. Some things that really can help:
    – Getting a heat pump. Heat pumps transfer maybe 4 times the amount of electricity energy they use, as heat. So they are about 4 times as efficient as a heater that converts electricity directly into heat.
    I live in New York State, and a heat pump reduced my winter energy bill to about 25% of what it was! That’s slightly exaggerated since the heat pump just heats the top floor, and my gas furnace was feeding heat into the bottom floor as well, where there are uninsulated walls in contact with the ground.
    So heat pumps aren’t only for warm climates. Heat pumps are getting more efficient. There’s apparently a heat pump coming out soon that can be used as the sole heat source for a house in Canada!
    – Go vegan or eat less animal food. Or at least, change from beef to poultry. Beef is very energy-intensive to raise; large animals are worse than small animals. I’m talking mostly about global warming impact, but they also use a lot of energy, I think. The paper “Energy, diet and global warming” by Eshel and Martin is available online, also the Feb 2009 issue of Scientific American had an article about this. It’s amazing how oblivious people are to impact of diet, but it is apparently pretty big.
    – It would really help if people would ride bikes more around town; I think a lot of people’s travel is short trips. I’ve been carfree and almost exclusively bike-transported for >10 years. From talking with people, the main obstacle to other people doing that seems to be fear! They think it’s incredibly dangerous. The cars have driven the bikes off the road. Perhaps when cars come to have computerized safe steering, people will finally feel safe on bikes. If they felt safe, maybe many able-bodied people would enjoy the mild exercise you get on a bike. I do.
    I don’t think a lot of the suggestions for energy saving/reducing global warming are significant. What’s needed is a sea change in how people live. People could go around conscientiously doing things like buying CFL’s etc. and turning out the lights, all the while feeling virtuous and green – as we start cooking ourselves with global warming or getting into a nuclear war in the Middle East because we’re dependent on their oil. It won’t help to live in a green dream.

  42. There’s a book “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air” which is available free online at It’s good for getting a quantitative idea about what’s important and what isn’t in terms of energy conservation, because he has bar charts of the various sectors of energy usage.

  43. Changing the thermostat by even small amounts can produce a pretty significant change.

    In Minneapolis, with an internal setpoint of 58°F, there are 5963 heating degree days.

    In Minneapolis, with an internal setpoint of 59°F, there are 6161 heating degree days.

    In Minneapolis, with an internal setpoint of 60°F, there are 6393 heating degree days.

    In Minneapolis, with an internal setpoint of 61°F, there are 6626 heating degree days.

    In Minneapolis, with an internal setpoint of 62°F, there are 6863 heating degree days.

    In Minneapolis, with an internal setpoint of 70°F, there are 9038 heating degree days

    For a 3°F increase there is about a 10% increase in heat usage.

  44. On thing I noticed about the questionaire in PNAS: the first part asked what people “could do” to help the environment. Others have pointed out that sometimes cash-flow limits you, but miss by how much.

    Consider someone like, well, me: environmentally aware, but also a grad student, and therefore making between half and a third of the median US income.

    I can’t insulate my home – it’s not *my* home, I rent, and I can’t afford it anyway.
    I can’t replace appliances – see above.
    I can’t replace my car, because I can’t afford to.
    I can’t use solar or geothermal or *anything* except what the power company gives me.
    Hell, I can’t even grow vegetables in the garden without getting lead-poisoning.

    Without knowing the socio-economic class of the people who this survey asked, it’s very hard to look at the first table and say much of anything. Sure, folks rolling in cash have plenty of options, but I’ve had CFLs for years and my wife and I hate kids, so what else can we really do? If they’d called me, I’d’ve probably been one of the “not sure” folks, simply because we’ve exhausted all options that don’t require a four-fold increase in our income.

  45. Hating kids is, probably, in the long run, the best thing you can do anyway.

    I was a grad student for many years and had essentially the same issues. During that time I lived half the time overseas. While in the US I did not drive because I lived in an urban area with good transportation and generally a mile or so from my lab. But really, I couldn’t do much.

    However, grad students as a group can be pretty lame, so check your surroundings and see if you can do this: Do your fellow graduate students, who are mostly intelligent progressive individuals unless you are gov students or something, vote? Ask around. Slap anyone who thinks they can’t vote because they can’t figure out where they live, or is just to lazy, upside the head. Figuratively, of course.

  46. Mokele,
    You’re in an excellent position to conserve: you can learn how to use a bike in various ways to get around town. There are things to know about it. I realized recently that I’ve developed skills like learning how to carry big loads on my bike and how to bike in a snowy winter – things other people really don’t know. I was considering putting together a website about how to do this, though there probably is one already.
    And you can eat less animal food, or become vegan, or at least substitute poultry for red meat – see my comment before.
    It’s funny that someone would say they’re too poor to conserve – since conserving energy generally saves you money.

  47. Laura, that’s decent advice mostly, but it does miss that it costs a lot of time to be poor, and saving money often costs more time. Nor do I necessarily recommend veganism. Some people can do it well. Lots more can end up poorly nourished, particularly those without extra resources.

  48. Stephanie,
    Veganism can be quite inexpensive. Yes, you have to do it right. There’s a paper by the ADA on vegetarian and vegan diets at – it details nutrients that may be a concern. Some common worries about it are completely unjustified: for example, it’s hard to not get enough protein, if you eat plenty of whole plant foods.
    Biking is an excellent way to get around. Some grad students get their exercise that way, rather than spending time at a gym. And it saves a LOT of money!

  49. Laura, I have a friend with a very good vegan diet. Well, actually, he had a good vegan diet until his doctor made him stop because of a B-vitamin deficiency that had pushed him into depression. After some massive supplementation via injection and a return to getting some animal products in his diet, he’s no longer experiencing this fairly common side effect of veganism. And you’re still missing the issue of time-poorness.

  50. Stephanie,
    If he got a terrible B-vitamin deficiency, he obviously didn’t have a good vegan diet. Just taking a multi vitamin and mineral with the RDA’s of everything will take care of that sort of thing.
    People can have poor diets on animal food, too. I knew someone who hated vegetables and fruit and loved eggs, mostly. Very high-fat diet, was fat. He couldn’t see in the dark! He turned out to have a vitamin A deficiency!
    And how many hours per day do people spend watching TV? Some shockingly large amount. I don’t think the idea that people just can’t afford the time to ride their bikes around, works. If that’s what you were getting at.
    People in China got around in droves on bicycles, for years. People in Holland do too. It’s obvious that people could do it far more in the US. The main obstacle seems to be fear of cars.

  51. ps I suggest asking about any worries about a vegan diet at These are a whole bunch of people there who eat a very lowfat vegan diet, and many who have for years. Mostly to lose weight, but there are also athletes and people doing calorie restriction for life extension there. A lot of very healthy people! in their vego-phobia, many people forget that vegans are healthier on average in many ways. Even though a lot of them aren’t carefully tracking their nutrients or taking supplements other than B12, they *still* manage to be healthier, like less heart disease and less overweight. There are just huge advantages to plant foods.
    I can’t eat grains or legumes, among many other foods. But I still manage to have a very healthy almost entirely vegan diet – with care. I get maybe 1% of my calories from animal food.

  52. Laura, would you like to talk to his doctor about their private discussions on oral supplementation? Do you need to interrogate my friend over what he ate every day (the same thing his wife did, by the way, with no problems)? Or are you a doctor making a diagnosis without screening the patient?

    No, diet is not that simple for everyone. Not everyone can tolerate all the same foods, and not everyone gets all the same nutrition from eating the same thing. Get off your idiotic high horse and stop acting as though you have the answers for everyone. Veganism isn’t supposed to be a religion. It’s supposed to be an option, but it’s one that requires knowledge, including the knowledge that sometimes a vegan diet fails a person instead of the other way around.

  53. Stephanie,
    Perhaps your friend who got a B-vitamin deficiency on a vegan diet, had a malabsorption problem. WHich could be caused by celiac disease. Sometimes people get into trouble with a vegan diet because they’re eating a lot more gluten than before, and they’re gluten intolerant without knowing it. Or, they might have some other grain or soy or whatever intolerance. In that case it’s much better to find out what caused the malabsorption problem or to find the food sensitivity with an elimination diet, than to try simply to overwhelm the malabsorption by eating tons of liver or whatever. Because celiac disease or hidden food sensitivities can cause serious problems.
    People on vegan diets can also check for nutrient deficiencies using a nutrient tracking program like the Cron-o-meter, available free online. Weigh and measure the food in their customary diet for awhile, and see what’s short. I haven’t used this program, I’ve used a little C program I wrote to check my diet.

  54. In your article you make a very valid point. We as individuals can do much to reduce our own carbon dioxide production, yet we are indeed selfish and lazy. I think that one of the reasons we don’t put forth the effort to reduce our carbon footprint is that we, as a society, don’t really grasp the long-term effects of our energy waste. It doesn’t take much effort, time, or money to make a signficant reduction in a persons carbon dioxide production and perhaps if more would become educated on why it is important then maybe a difference could be made. Great article.

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