Promoting energy efficiency

Recently, someone mentioned to me that they feel guilty about using twist-ties on plastic bags, because of the potential environmental consequences of doing so. To me, this seems like an extreme demonstration of how people can sometimes fail to grasp the relative scale of environmental impacts – they walk to work for a few days, rather than driving, and think that constitutes a substantial contribution to fighting climate change. At the same time, it is quite likely that they live in a home that is so poorly insulated that improvements would pay for themselves in a few years.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides some quantitative data showing that people underestimate their own energy consumption and highlight relatively insignificant activities when asked how they can improve:

When asked to rank the single most effective way to save energy, participants typically endorsed activities with small savings, such as turning off lights, while ignoring what they could economise on larger devices. This suggests that people misallocate their efforts, fretting over an unattended lamp (at 100 watts) while neglecting the energy they could save by nudging their washer settings from “hot” to “warm” (4,000 watt-hours for each load of laundry).

While it can be argued that more education is the solution, I think it is probably more effective to use approaches that do not depend on voluntary change at the user level. One option is higher energy prices, to encourage conservation. That is especially justified at times of peak demand, when inefficient power plants get turned on.

Another option is to set higher standards for buildings and appliances. It may be best to simply ban especially inefficient options. Another tatic is to levy a fee on inefficient appliances – such as dishwashers, driers, and washing machines – and use the revenues to subsidize more efficient models. That would reduce the price differential between relatively good and relatively poor choices.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

11 thoughts on “Promoting energy efficiency”

  1. The problem is, neither higher prices or bans of low efficiency products will efficiently allocate capital to efficiency improvements. Those rich enough to be insulated from higher energy costs are exactly those who should be allocating the most resources towards reducing their dependance on the grid. And outright bans will be littered with corporate favours – do you really think Ottawa will hand a gift to off-grid manufacturers who are already producing the high efficiency appliances which could radically lower consumer electricity demand?

    A better strategy might be to begin limiting the amount of electricity which the grid will supply to a house, based on things like location (temperature), income, etc…

    Could such a strategy be implemented in the short term – perhaps during periods of high usage? Rather than have the entire system brown-out or fail, why not begin restricting individual consumers draw at peak times – and if they exceed it, penalize them with a one hour cut off? This, and perhaps nothing else, might convince people to turn down their air conditioners.

  2. Even the rich are swayed by purchase prices. I saw that at Staples, where someone would put thousands of dollars onto a company credit card and then buy a terrible $80 printer instead of a half-decent $100 printer.

  3. The rich expect very little benefit from the last dollar they spend. This is why 100$ bottles of wine exist.

  4. I copied and pasted this from facebook – I think it well illustrates the phenomenon Milan is referring to:

    “Daiya Vegan Cheese This weeks pledge for the Daiya team is to stop using paper cups! Refusable mugs when we go for coffee! What can you do to help the enviroment?

    Let us know whats in your daily routine and give us some ideas for next week :)

    Matsya Siosal Ⓥ Good move ditching disposable cups. Another way to reduce waste in a big way is to buy in bulk whenever possible and reuse biodegradable bags to bring it home in. My goal is to be able to compost or reuse 90% of my household waste.

    Jenn Sugar Knuckles Stillwagon Going vegan is an obvious answer ;)

    Lanie Hovelle Marsh Reusable utensils instead of plastic/disposable ones:

    Tammy Kirschner Cloth napkins instead of paper towels or paper napkins.

    Marcie Hertz Siebert I do not buy paper towels either. I make for fun napkins (for myself and my friends). Every occasion, Halloween, Mardi Gras, Fall, Winter, Valentines, etc, etc,etc. I started when my 29 year old was about 10 after a friend( who has since passed away) gave me my first 4 Saint Pats Napkins and she basically said she wanted everyone to not use paper towels. Now I make “Cars” and “Mickey Mouse” napkins for my 4 and 2 year old grandchildren. Great hobby also.

    Liz Baca My 7-year old and I try to pack waste-free lunches as much as possible. We use reusable plastic containers with snap lids in all different sizes for sandwiches, chips, treats, etc. Also bought her a stainless steel thermos designed for kids, which keeps her juice much colder than a juice box. Plus, added bonus, she is learning to be responsible for the environment at a much younger age than I did.

    Carrie Jae I was raised on paper plates and paper towels. Now we only keep paper towels around for the really nasties, like cat puke or nasty spills (sorry) and now only use maybe one roll per month. We are transitioning to remove all disposable plast…

    Daiya Vegan Cheese We are loving the suggestions, lets keep them coming!

    Bethany L. Schoeff I never liked wash cloths for cleaning pots/pans or sinks/counters. I found reusable/washable sponges (they can be thrown in the dishwasher or washing machine, instead of the trash, and used again and again).

    Mike Malenock ‎1 – No paper towels in restrooms – air dryers
    2 – Eco friendly soap
    3 – Motion activated lights in conference rooms and offices
    4 – Motion activated faucets
    5 – Recycle!!

    Tristan Philosophe Shop at Starbucks because buying their shit will save the world!

  5. There is also some worrisome research that – after a person has made an insignificant contribution to solving a problem – they then feel like they have ‘done their part’ and are unwilling to do more. They are also more willing to do things that cause far more harm than what they gave up: “I was good today and brought my own mug – time for my helicopter ride!”

  6. China U-turn on enforced power cuts in Hebei

    Thousands of people in China are to have their electricity restored after the reversal of an order for enforced power cuts to meet energy-saving goals.

    Officials in Hebei province ordered local governments to maintain normal power supplies for residential users.

    Hospitals, schools and homes in Anping county have suffered intermittent cuts.

    China overtook the US last year as the world’s biggest energy consumer, but with a bigger population it is still well behind in consumption per person.

    The figures were released by the International Energy Agency.

  7. Cultural change could also be important. There has already been some backlash against large vehicles. Perhaps large and inefficient homes will eventually be seen in a similar light.

  8. One of the small lessons that I learned this summer was how inexpensive our food is in Canada. In order to make a contribution to protecting our environment, I have been working on an organic vegetable garden in our home. I have gained a new respect for farmers as well as a better appreciation for how difficult it would be to feed the world without pesticides and fertilizers. I have hauled soil from the transfer station, planted companion vegetables to maximize soil efficiency, read many books on the subject and produced enough food for one person for the summer, at best. I will continue to improve my techniques without the use of chemicals, but I will also not buy pineapples that are flown here half way around the world and cost less than the small, but sweet cherry tomatoes grown in my front yard. I think that consumers should pay much more for fruit that comes from Fiji and get used to eating local food at real cost. We may all get thinner too and deal with the obesity issue at the same time.

  9. What ISO setting was used for today’s photo?

    It was taken at ISO1600 with a shutter speed of 1/60″ and an aperture of f/3.5. It was taken on the Canon 50mm f/1.8.

  10. For many years energy efficiency was the poor relation to cutting-edge clean technology initiatives like wind and solar. But now the more workaday strategies are getting a new look-in. Efficiency measures can often save as much power as the more glamorous efforts can produce, at a fraction of the cost. One widely used estimate comes from a 2009 report from McKinsey, which reckoned that America could reduce its non-transport energy consumption by roughly 23% by 2020 through efficiency savings alone.

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