Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Better Targeting Energy Use Reduction Strategies

We're not very good at judging the impacts of our energy and energy saving choices, so says a recent study. Happily, aspects of that are pretty easy to fix.

Americans are likely to think that we can make a bigger difference in our energy usage by curtailing activities rather than doing them with more efficient approaches using currently existing technologies. That's wrong, at least for the typical American. The more numerate and more pro-environment the participant, the more accurate their perceptions tended to be, so this isn't universal.

What are the most powerful things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint? How does what you think compare to what experts think? "Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings," published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looks into these questions.

The study found that when asked about the most effective strategies for energy reduction, respondents were more likely to identify curtailment strategies than efficiency improvements. What does that mean? Well, people were more likely to talk about doing less of something (turning off the lights or driving less) than they were to talk about doing things with more efficiency (using Energy Star appliances or a car with better gas mileage).

We're not very good at identifying the impact of the changes we make or might make. The article draws from several others in ways that are helpful in making these estimates. Citing Gardner & Stern, they note:

that by changing the selection and use of household and motor vehicle technologies, households could reduce their energy consumption by nearly 30%without waiting for new technologies,making major economic sacrices, or losing a sense of well-being.

That made me want to take a look at the Gardner & Stern article. I suggest that article as well as the one that was actually the catalyst for this post. I especially like this point:
Curtailment actions must be repeated continuously over time to achieve their optimal effect, whereas efficiency-boosting actions, taken infrequently or only once, have lasting effects with little need for continuing attention and effort.
Identifying the energy suckers
So, identify your big energy suckers and figure out how to make them better in a long lasting way. What are the big suckers? Here's one of a number of helpful tables in Gardner & Stern:

And, here's another (really tiny but still) useful table (Click here to see it in a readable format):

How do you compare to the typical American?
Of course in thinking about these things you need to keep in mind how you compare to the typical American. You may already have a hybrid car. You may fly much more than the average American (~2 roundtrip flights/household/year). Most Americans don't fly at all in the typical year, so I used the word 'average' instead of 'typical'. Adding a lot of flight time to your life makes your carbon footprint, well, skyrocket.

If your habits, like mine, are different from the typical American, adjust your targets accordingly. I fly a lot more than the average American, but have already done many of the things identified in Table 3. Unfortunately, my flying habits brings my emissions up to too close to the national average. Sigh. Dealing with my flying addiction is a longer term goal.

Hopefully the above will help you identify your low hanging energy reduction fruit, and maybe let you know what only is making a small difference. Of course, small differences do add up (and leaving lights on in an empty room just drives me crazy).

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