Are We ‘Delusional’ About Energy Usage?

Posted on August 25, 2010 by Courtney

How do you save energy around your house? Hopefully you at least turn off the lights when you leave a room and throw on a sweater instead of cranking up the heat when it’s cold outside. But what do we really know about energy consumption? Results from a study conducted by researchers at Columbia University, Ohio State University, and Carnegie Mellon University have appeared in several media outlets recently, and the data suggest that people, even green-minded people like us, may not know as much about energy conservation as we think.

Why? Well, in the study, participants were asked an open-ended question worded thusly: “In your opinion, what is the most effective thing that you could do to conserve energy in your life?” According to the results, a significant number of people responded that they turn off the lights and unplug appliances. In other words, they’d rather reduce usage than buy new bulbs or invest in energy-efficient appliances, both of which would use far less energy than continuing to use older bulbs or appliances, even if you cut down on use. In the media, these results are often framed to suggest that Americans don’t have any concept of what energy efficiency is, and clearly we’ve been misinformed about the best ways to cut down on our consumption.

I have a few issues with this study, though, the most pressing being the question itself. I have a master’s degree in communication, and in the many, many surveys I conducted while I was in grad school, I learned that the wording of the question is vital. “In your opinion, what is the most effective thing that you could do to conserve energy in your life?” How would you answer that question? I’m thrown off by the use of the word “could.” There are a lot of things I could do around my home to make it more efficient, but that doesn’t mean I will, because I can’t afford a wind turbine or a complete solar power system. But then the question includes the phrase “in your life,” which seems to implore a personal response, as in the day-to-day things I do around my home. My point is this: In my home, I turn off lights rather than running out to buy an Energy Star refrigerator. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand the energy savings that come along with said refrigerator. I believe the question is ambiguous, and since it’s open-ended, the responses probably varied wildly. It’s no wonder we appear to be confused.

Another issue I have with this study is that it doesn’t take into account the energy usage associated with buying something new. Yes, a washer and dryer made this year are certainly more efficient than the 20-year-old ones you’re using now, but a new washer and dryer must be manufactured, tested, packaged, shipped, and installed in your house, plus the old ones must be removed and disposed of. How much energy is consumed in that process? I’m sure it’s still saving energy in the long run, but there’s a reason that buying new things, even eco-friendly products, is not green unless they’re absolutely necessary. In other words, hang on to your old washer and drier until they kick the bucket, then go out and buy your new, energy-efficient appliances.

Essentially, I’m taking issue with the sensationalistic headline that we’re “delusional” when it comes to energy savings. Most of us know what products are efficient, we just don’t have the means to include them in our lifestyles just yet. Maybe we will one day, but for now, give us a little credit.

What do you think of this study? Do you have a good grasp on the best ways to save energy around your house? Do you think other people do?


  1. It’s always better to do something than nothing. Sure, I’d love to buy a new hybrid car to save energy, too, but that doesn’t mean I can. Let’s educate consumers, but let’s not go crazy. I think the authors of the study are probably just looking for an attention grabbing headline.

    August 25th, 2010 at 9:32 am
    Comment by Julie
  2. Hear hear.

    Every little bit helps, so let’s not punish everyone for being “delusional” when they unplug appliances rather than purchase more efficient ones. You’re absolutely right in that you can word any question in a study to get the answer you’re seeking. Precisely why I don’t put much weight in studies like this.

    August 25th, 2010 at 10:24 am
    Comment by The Modern Gal
  3. You raise many good points. I am interested in energy conservation, but, bottom line, I turn off lights to save money. I’d like to add solar panels to generate electricity, not so much to save money (I doubt I will recoup my investment in energy savings) but to have another source of electricity when the power goes out (and I don’t want to buy a gas powered generator). However, working from home is what I consider my best way to conserve because I am driving my car less, which I think is better than buying a new hybrid. Energy conservation is a very complex topic that deserves more than a single question survey.

    August 25th, 2010 at 1:03 pm
    Comment by Abby
  4. I also think any study like this ignores the fact that a large percentage of the population does not own their own home. Most apartment dwellers don’t choose their refrigerator or utilities and don’t do laundry in house. Heck, the most I can do to reduce energy usage (aside from driving habits) is to turn stuff off.

    I completely agree that the survey’s findings were inconsistent with the wording of the question, and reporting it the way they did was probably unethical.

    August 27th, 2010 at 1:09 pm
    Comment by mickey
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