Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

Americans Don't Have a Clue About How to Save Energy

LED light bulb

Think you can save lots of energy by turning off the lights when you leave the room? Think again. That's just one of the energy-saving fallacies that many Americans buy into. A new survey (PDF) from the Earth Institute at Columbia University of 505 participants across 34 states reveals that by and large, Americans don't have a clue about how to conserve energy. While more involved actions like buying a hybrid or shelling out for insulation save significant amounts of energy, turning off the lights provides a negligible benefit.

An embarrassing 20% of all respondents believed that switching off the lights is the best way to save energy, while only 3.2% cited more efficient appliances, 2.8% chose more efficient cars, 2.8% believed sleeping more would save the most energy (fair enough), and 2.1% cited home weatherization as the most effective approach.

Unsurprisingly, respondents who identified as pro-environment had more accurate views about energy conservation. But participants who engaged in more energy-saving activities actually had less accurate perceptions about what helps the most.

The reason for the spread of misinformation? The study theorizes:

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. For example ... scientists may have failed the public by not providing information in a credible and comprehensible manner to facilitate better climate-related decisions.

But all hope is not lost. If the government ramps up energy information campaigns and changing gas prices to more accurately reflect the environmental cost of CO2 emissions, Americans might slowly get the hint that, say, insulating homes from extreme heat and cold will save more energy than flicking off the lights.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

Add New Comment


  • desktoparchitecture

    I have thus far replaced our home's aging Heat Pump with a new current generation one with SEER of 20.0. I am also working on the completion of a Solar Array which will provide 60% of the yearly Kwh needed by our residence. Given the current buyback price for wheeling of energy back into the power system we should be able to soon almost break even in our power costs. This along with an initial prorated cost of installation that will pay for itself within 10 years. Smart Energy consumption can pay for its own installation.

  • Regina Wilson

    We started replacing the major appliance with Energy Star in 2005-2008. Did the obvious and swapped the incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescent. If we saved anything, it was minimal. However in 2009 we replaced all the siding (1.5" of insulation), windows (triple pane, argon filled) and doors (insulated fiberglass) and we've cut our energy bill by 25-30%. Recouping the large cost of this investment would take 20-30 years, but we made the decision to replace virtually all the exterior of the house because it needed it - it was looking tired - and the savings are just an added bonus. Heating/cooling and hot water heaters are the big energy consumers in most homes.

  • Dave Knight

    I love the light bulb image. If it is real, I would love to know where I could buy some, regardless of how much energy they waste.

  • Dave Knight

    This article bites. I just got schooled for not knowing how to convserve energy and then the ariticle doesn't inform me? It's like mocking a person for not know what the equation is to determine the area of a circle, but refusing to tell them. Now I know that turning of the lights is not beneficial, so I can leave them all on day and night now. Good to know, thanks. Would have been better to educate me beyond "insulating homes from extreme heat and cold." The problem with that statement is that it all comes down to dollars. When I get a quote for $5,000+ to replace all the old windows in my house with super low-e, double pane, and non-metal frames I am told that I can expect up to 20% saving on my electric bill. With a $125 electric bill, I will save $25 a month. At $25 a month in savings, it will take 200 months to recover my $5,000 outlay for new windows. So what do I say to that? I say, "I'll keep my $5,000 and just turn off the lights."

  • Steph

    "Turn out the lights, turn off the faucet" is something you tell a child. As a culture, we do have a few strong "clues" about energy conservation: they are the two or three tips we got on Earth Day in elementary school--that's when ideas stuck. No wonder that's all that comes to our minds.

    Now grown-ups, few are paying enough attention or are willing to commit the time to educate themselves. Is there a way to recreate the excitement of a 4th grade classroom and inspire the righteous commitment that comes so naturally to a nine year-old?

  • Felix Desroches

    Single digit percentages do not a damning case make.

    I definitely don't think the government is the only responsible party when it comes to education (come on!), but I would be curious to see this poll in 10 years; by then, all the kids who are (hopefully) getting educated as we speak about energy saving and environmental awareness, will then get the chance to put the doctrine into practise.

  • anna grate

    i think that this subject is completely right.americans dont know how to save energy!everyone should go green,and eco-friendly.millions of people could help.but choose not to!

  • Jeremy Schultz

    Good news, why not add a graf that lists those best ways to conserve energy and give us "a clue about how to conserve energy?" No national campaign needed, just a little more effort for you when researching this article.

  • Ryan Brackman

    So how do you conserve energy? You tell us we are misinformed and the only information you can give us near a solution is let the government handle it? Wow. I have only seen the buck passed this fast one other time in my life and the guy that passed it to me was too lazy to do his own work! lol!!!

    Good concept for an article but you only did half your job. Finish your job and I would likely repost it for my readers because people I interact with use large amounts of energy and any way to reduce their usage is always interesting to them and myself.

  • Paul Rizo

    The media has done nothing but distort the whole global warming fiasco. The government??? They couldn't find their ass if their head was up it. If I hear one more thing about carbon footprints I'm gonna puke. Lets look at realistic environmental issues and not theories or made up charts. I'm all for being a good steward but not for allowing the government to tell me what kind of frickin light bulb to put in my lamp or how much of a carbon footprint I can leave. Last time I looked highly developed nations have the best, cleanest and healthiest environment to live in.

  • chuck cory

    Carbon footprint is a real measurement and to ignore it is irrational, let alone irresponsible. Start puking if you will. Who would you elect as a good steward? Look again at highly developed nations, but first take off your rose colored glasses. The only reason the government has to tell what kind of frikin light bulb to use, is the reason for most government intervention in our lives: people do not take personal responsibility, think they are the center of the universe and do not care about how they are harming other people in one way or another. Enjoy your puke.

  • Harry Duncan

    It is unfortunate that so many people don't have a clue about energy conservation. We have done all the tried and true methods with good results but one thing we did really saved a bunch on our energy bills. We installed window tint on our older western facing windows to cut down on the heat and glare coming in during the summer. It works, works, works.... We could not afford to install new windows and found a company called SnapTint that sells window tint kits at an affordable price. We had the tint installed in one afternoon. Check out their website.