Let’s Think Differently about the Energy We Use

Researcher proposes a new energy efficiency measurement

Phys.org, July 2, 2015. Image credit: PublicDomainPictures

Rick Larrick has been on a crusade to help people better understand how much energy they use. A professor with Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, in 2008 Larrick and Fuqua colleague Jack Soll proposed a gallons per mile standard that the federal government added to new car stickers in 2013. In later research he found consumers more likely to buy fuel-efficient cars if the savings were estimated over 100,000 miles of use. Now, along with colleagues Soll and Ralph Keeney, Larrick has created a blueprint of sorts, incorporating those ideas into a new way of explaining energy consumption. “Designing Better Energy Metrics for Consumers” is published in the journal Behavioral Science & Policy.

Q: You’re asking people to think differently about the energy we use. In what way?

Most people do not know how much electricity they use, or how much specific appliances use; they know that refrigerators use more than light bulbs, but do a poor job estimating the difference. It may feel like we hear lots of stuff about costs and being green, but this information has not been readily available in the simple, clear, usable forms. Consumer reports bury these important numbers in tables that are way too large and complicated. Many products claim to be green but don’t spell out what that means. Energy labels on cars did not provide greenhouse gas emissions until 2013. Labels on appliances still do not. Air conditioners are rated in a way that is hard to translate to the personal cost to cool your home. A great deal of new research has emerged over the last 10 years on how to improve consumer understanding of energy. Historically, there’s been too much information or too little. Our latest work boils it down to a few basic principles for helping people understand energy clearly:

  • A focus on consumption, not efficiency;
  • Expressing energy use relative to important and easily understood comparisons;
  • Translating energy use to personal goals such as cost and environmental impact;
  • Expressing energy use over extended periods of time and use.
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