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Commentary: Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings

An interesting paper has recently been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled “Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings” (see http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/08/06/1001509107.shortb) by Attari et al. This paper provides insights into how people view the quantity of energy consumed for various tasks that are normal in an industrial society. The paper authors conclude that people generally overestimate the energy savings for changing habits related to saving low quantities of energy while underestimating energy savings associated with saving larger quantities of energy.

This research shows some of the difficulties in using surveys to assess perceptions and reality of how energy impacts our lives. Take for example the following in which the respondent is asked to select how strongly he/she agrees or disagrees with the statement:

“We are approaching the limit of the number of people the earth can support.”

Today, human population is approximately 6.7 billion. If you believe that the earth can only support 2 billion people, then you could strongly disagree with the statement on the grounds that we are not approaching that limit, but that we have far surpassed the limit. However, if you believe the earth can support 12 billion people, then you might also strongly disagree with the statement because you think we are far from the earth’s limits (i.e. we are not yet “approaching the limit”). So two completely different answers might prompt selecting the same response to the statement.

The results for the questions pertaining to values and behavioral questions (e.g. how hard do you think it is to change your energy consuming habits) are not presented in the PNAS paper by Attari, but these are important questions to ask. Many people believe that the vast majority of people will not willfully conserve energy without financial penalties (e.g. high prices or taxes) for consumption. I fall into that category myself. We find ourselves in an interesting time as for only the second time in the last 40 years we (in the US) have reached a point where over 10% of GDP was spent directly on primary and secondary energy.

The first time period was from the mid 1970s-mid 1980s and likely in 2008 as well (see figure). The first time over 10% of GDP was spent on energy was driven by political events – particularly the Arab Oil Embargos and the Iran-Iraq War. This most recent worldwide economic recession starting in 2008 was not driven by a particular political event, but has been a growing trend for almost a decade (at least with particular reference to the US).

The US broke out of the recessions cause by the oil shortages of the 1970s by investing in energy efficiency for vehicles (Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards), only to find itself equally or more dependent upon oil for economic growth today as in 1970. Important questions are: Will the US meet its new CAFE goals (reaching 35.5 miles per gallon for vehicles sales; 39 mpg for cars and 30 mpg for trucks and sport-utility vehicles) by 2016? This targeted increase is approximately the same percentage increase in fuel efficiency as occurred from the 1970s to the late 1980s in meeting the original CAFE standards. If the US (and the world) is successful in reducing oil consumption per mile traveled by 2016 (or soon thereafter), will we only find ourselves in the same position 10-30 years down the road? In other words, will we just wait until we consume too much gasoline for it to take too much out of our wallets to again think about restructuring the way our economy functions and consumes energy?

There are reasons to think this time is different. This time we are well past peak oil production for the US. Perhaps we have reached peak crude oil production in the US and so far the statistics seem to point to that possibly being true (but it will take several more years to confirm the full truth). In reading the August 15, 2010 issue of Science which talks about scaling up of renewable energy, there are two articles about biofuels. One article in particular (“Challenges in Scaling up Biofuels Infrastructure” by Tom Richard) notes the logistical issues with making fuels out of biomass. Richard discusses much about how we are supposed to create a viable supply chain for the relatively low-density biomass materials to go from the farm to the biorefinery and finally to the consumer. The reason that this is such a hard problem is that the net energy of the biomass fuel is so low that it is not obvious that we can run our current economy as designed if using these fuels to any large degree. That is also a major difference now from the 1970s – we’re actually really trying to grow an economy using biofuels instead of just making cars run on less fuel and importing more oil.

About Carey King

Dr. Carey W King performs interdisciplinary research related to how energy systems interact within the economy and environment as well as how our policy and social systems can make decisions and tradeoffs among these often competing factors. The past performance of our energy systems is no guarantee of future returns, yet we must understand the development of past energy systems. Carey’s research goals center on rigorous interpretations of the past to determine the most probable future energy pathways. Carey is a Research Scientist and Assistant Director at the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin, and appointed also at the the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy within the Jackson School of Geosciences and Business, Government, and Society Department of the McCombs School of Business. Visit his website at: http://careyking.com and follow on Twitter @CareyWKing
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