The Reality of Saving Energy, Money, and the Planet

Which uses more energy, a recycled glass bottle or an aluminum can made from virgin material? Most people think it is the recycled bottle. Of course, I wouldn’t have brought it up if the correct answer was the popular one. TurnsElectric Wires Crop - Diligentdogs out, recycled and new glass bottles use about the same amount of energy and both use a bit more than a new aluminum can. The energy consumption of recycled cans are an order of magnitude lower.

I got this from an interesting paper recently published on common perceptions versus the reality of energy savings. Much to my non-surprise, they found that perception and reality are only roughly related. “The observed correlations between judged and actual energy values, although positive, may be too small to support sound decision making.”

The paper is based on a survey that asked respondents to rank groups of alternatives in terms of relative energy savings. Some, like the beverage containers, had to do with energy used outside a consumer’s view. For example, when asked to rank the energy use of transporting goods by airplane, ship, train, and truck, most people correctly picked air as the most inefficient. However, they ranked the other three as being about the same. (In fact, trucks use about ten times the energy of trains and ships.)

But even when asked about things like household appliances and gas mileage people made meaningful mistakes. The savings from reducing driving speed from 70 to 60 was overestimated, while the savings from tuning up the car was (greatly) underestimated.

Overall, the researchers found a consistent pattern in the under/over estimations of consumer energy use. People tended to favor not doing something over doing it more efficiently.

When asked for the most effective strategy they could implement to conserve energy, most participants mentioned curtailment (e.g., turning off lights, driving less) rather than efficiency improvements (e.g., installing more efficient light bulbs and appliances), in contrast to experts’ recommendations.

This fits nicely into my basic criticism of most frugalism. It is concerned less with saving money than with finding and carrying out conspicuous money saving acts. Driving in the slow lane and line-drying clothes is preferred over tuning the car or getting a more efficient clothes dryer because they are things you can do on a daily basis. In as much as they are a little annoying, they are more easily noticed reminders of virtue.

The survey breaks out the relationship between a person’s accuracy on the questions and certain other traits and behaviors. The usual demographic divisions, gender, age, income, political views, etc., had little or no effect. But measures of greenness, climate change attitude and pro-environment behaviors, did have a significant impact on accuracy. Greens tended to be less accurate.

Surprisingly, participants’ self-reported environmental behaviors scale always had a negative coefficient and was significant in three of the five tests, indicating that participants who reported engaging in a greater number of proenvironmental energy-related behaviors had less accurate perceptions.

It is clear that the authors of the paper are indeed surprised, and confused, by this result. Their basic thesis is that the planet is being destroyed because people are making incorrect decisions about energy use based on ignorance.

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.

So how can it be that the pro-environment green types, who presumably understand the case for climate change and the implications for individual behavior most clearly, actually understand the facts of energy conservation less well?

To those of us who think that the media has not presented a stronger case for climate change because there is no stronger case to be made, the answer to this conundrum is obvious. The greens have a poor command of the practical facts that surround their central cause because those facts are not important to them.

Particularly as it intersects with frugalism (and the overlap is wide) greenism is more about asceticism than practical concerns about saving money or the planet. Banning incandescent light bulbs is not important because it will have any practical effect. It is important because it qualifies, for reasons I honestly do not quite understand, as the right thing to do.

[Photo – Diligentdog]

No Comments

  • By Neil, August 27, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    In the study, they are comparing the energy used to form a virgin can to forming a recycled glass bottle. However, most unbroken glass bottles sent for “recycling” are cleaned and reused rather than strictly speaking recycled (where they would be crushed down and reformed.) A tiny glass dot is added to the bottom as part of this process, and bottles are truly recycled after a certain number of uses (not sure the number).

    So the issue isn’t energy/bottle vs energy/can, but rather energy/use in each case, which the study doesn’t mention. Cans are single use items, and must be re manufactured after each use.

    On the whole, your assessment appears to be accurate, that people prefer conspicuous energy savings methods to inconspicuous ones, even if they are less effective.

  • By Coley, August 27, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    Many self-proclaimed green types are horrified to learn that a dishwasher is more efficient than washing by hand.

  • By Frank, August 27, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

    It is concerned less with saving money than with finding and carrying out conspicuous money saving acts

    So true. My favorite was a friend who scrimps and saves but I know for a fact he left 25k/year on the table because he didn’t even bother to negotiate when one of my clients recruited him.

    Me: “So, how did the negotiations go?”

    Him: “Negontiations?”

  • By Steve, August 27, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

    I think a lot of times the problem is just conflicting information and too many web sites putting out non-scientific opinion. I consider myself to be “green” and interested in saving money, although not rabidly “frugal” for its own sake. However, I found when trying to get good information about how to get the most cost effective energy-saving furnace that it took forever to gather information to make an informed decision. And yes, I and my friends do know that a dishwasher generally is more “green” than washing by hand, depending on how you do the washing versus whether you have an efficient dishwasher, etc. Problem is, nothing is black and white. The most cost effective choice is not always easy to determine.
    In general, you make sense, Frank, that some people are more interested in asceticism than the actual most green choice, however, I fail to understand why you persist in your love for incandescent light bulbs. There is scientific data that the new compact fluorescents save money and energy and, in general, make the most sense for most applications. And, yes, they have come a long way in terms of the quality of light, so, if you’re basing your hatred of the fluorescents on something you tried 2 years ago, you are doing just what you accuse others of doing, being irrational and making decisions without good evidence.

  • By mc, August 27, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

    “It is concerned less with saving money than with finding and carrying out conspicuous money saving acts.”

    I contend that frugalism and greenism are, for many people, religions that teach salvation by works (karma). The point is to have the *experience* of giving things up, and thereby achieve righteousness. This is much more important than the amount of money or natural resources actually saved. All this is often connected with a notion that wasting money or harming the environment is the essence of human sinfulness.

  • By jim, August 27, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

    The general population thinks recycling and energy conservation through curtailment is more impactful than it really is when compared to energy efficient improvements. OK.
    Green types are even more biased and skewed about how much impact they think curtailment actually has. OK.

    This says to me that people in general overestimate the impact of curtailment and that the people who most buy into energy efficiency exaggerate its impact the most.

    People having an exaggerated view of the impact of curtailment or recycling or any other ‘green’ movement doesn’t mean that such things have NO value or should not be done or that they’re not important or impractical. It just means people are often mistaken or confused about which energy saving practices actually save more energy.

    There seems to be more emphasis on curtailment or ‘little’ changes because they are *easy* to do, have little cost and easier to get people to buy into. We’re told about this stuff often and people tell each other about it. So it becomes more common and more talked about. Peoples perception of its importance is then skewed.

    Plus Americans are bad at math and science. I read that in another study.

    Some of this is just a matter of what we’ve always been told. Your mother might have told you 10,000 times in your life to turn off the lights when you leave the room. So you’ve had it drilled into your head that this is important. Never once did she tell you how heat pumps save energy. You don’t necessarily stop to go research the facts about how much electricity lighting uses versus what you’d save by installing a new heat pump. So if someone asks you what is important energy saving thing to do your experience growing up will trigger the automatic answer to repeat your mothers insistence you turn off the lights.

  • By Aaron, August 27, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

    A related phenomenon is the whole hybrid car thing. When one factors in the fuel used to manufacture a hybrid car to replace a non-hybrid car that was still functional, one finds that the slight savings from fuel efficiency will take years to off-set the unnecessary fuel expenditure in the manufacture of the hybrid.

    But, driving a hybrid car is a sacrament in enviro-religion, and so such concerns are ignored.

  • By Dasha, August 27, 2010 @ 9:46 pm

    @Neil – do you have a source for that information? I’ve never heard it before and it makes me wonder by whom and how the right bottles are returned to the right companies and who pays for this. I googled and checked wikipedia but could not find anything about it.

  • By Sam, August 28, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

    I found this interesting. The paper says that those with “proenvironmental attitudes” actually had more accurate perceptions. But it says that those who engaged in “proenvironmental energy-related behaviors” had less accurate perceptions. And a person’s “climate-change attitude” was not really related the accuracy of their perceptions.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, August 29, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

    Steve: I’m willing to stipulate that CFLs are just as good as incandescents. The point is that the entire thing is basically a misguided effort. The amount of energy used in the US for lighting is just so small (although, of course, quite visible) that making it more efficient isn’t much of a help.

    mc: Spot on.

    Aaron: If the still functional one is scrapped, you’d have a point. If somebody else drives it, then the hybrid is just another new car.

    Sam: Both environmental behaviors and climate change attitude had statistically significant negative coeffiecients in the study. However, participants who scored well on something called the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) were more accurate.

  • By Aaron, August 29, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    “Aaron: If the still functional one is scrapped, you’d have a point. If somebody else drives it, then the hybrid is just another new car.”

    …as happened with Cash for Clunkers.. Although I am not sure if that was an environmental effort or a subsidy effort.

  • By ps, August 30, 2010 @ 4:42 am

    I think in the smugness to point at and laugh at all the “greenies” and their foolish ideas, some basic points are misleading or inaccurate in the above comments.

    Let’s start with the premise that people are stupid and greedy. They may not be willing to shell out the cash for the new efficient dryer, but to assuage their guilt (and what is wrong with guilt about unnecessarily warming the planet and continuing our dependence on resource extraction in unstable parts of the world?) or to save a little money up front, they are willing to take the small step of hanging their clothes to dry (how that takes more energy than the most efficient clothes dryer in the world as is implied is puzzling).

    Another example cited was washing dishes vs dishwasher. As was pointed out, nothing is black and white: how you wash dishes determines which is more efficient. But not having a dishwasher at all (and the energy required to extract the materials and construct such a device) saves a lot more energy.

    Point is, people are willing to take small steps that don’t cost them much in a sometimes-misguided attempt to help reduce energy usage (be it for cost savings or for planet savings or for foreign-policy savings). Why ding them for that?

    The implication is that since people aren’t willing to take LARGER steps to achieve these goals, the government should take those steps (be it through market devices or regulation) to achieve those worthwhile goals – like mandating more efficient dryers/cars/lighting/building, or implementing a carbon tax. But leaders have no stomach for such unpopular notion.

    I’m sure my advocating greater government involvement will really set the bells off with most readers here!

  • By Sam, August 30, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

    I’m not a statistician, so I may be misreading the numbers, but a person’s climate change attitude appears to have positive as well as negative coefficients (in Table 2), which is why the paper concludes that it could not be used (in general) to determine the accuracy of a person’s perceptions.

    The paper does associate NEP with “proenvironmental attitudes”.

  • By jim, August 30, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    Frank: Your argument against fluorescent lamps seems to mostly be that it won’t save enough to matter.

    Lighting in residential homes uses around 2% of total US energy consumption (thats all consumption including all forms of energy in all sectors). Lighting is about 10% of the energy usage in homes. If you can easily and cheaply cut that in half then you’d cut total US energy consumption by 1%. Is saving 1% of total usage not worth doing? Why is 1% change not enough to bother?

    Granted -1% change isn’t a large portion of the whole if you want look at it that way. But if the goal is to get a reduction then taking an easy 1% reduction with little cost and effort seems like a no brainer.

    If you think CFL’s aren’t enough of a change then it seems that you should instead be making larger and more costly changes in order to make a larger impact. i.e. buying an efficient furnace, buying a hybrid, etc. Those will make larger changes in our energy usage than lighting. But of course they come at much larger cost and lower ROI.

  • By Neil, August 30, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

    @Dasha – I have a couple friends who work for breweries. They receive shipments of cleaned bottles for reuse. This is the kind of thing that comes up in conversation amongst my, admittedly strange, friends.

    Maybe this does vary from place to place, but the bottle recycling system here is a bunch of private companies coordinated by the government. I’m not sure of the “how” details, just the fact that this is the system. I’m not even sure who pays for what, how much falls on the taxpayer, and how much on the brewers, or how it works with out-of-province bottlers.

    I had an unrelated thought about curtailment vs efficiency, and why this is a biased study. On average, efficiency may be more valuable than curtailment, but each situation is different. If a more efficient lightbulb uses 1/3 the energy, but you can cut your lighting use by 75%, curtailment is more effective. Likewise, cutting your truck use in half (curtailment) is still more wasteful than buying an efficient car (efficiency), but selling the truck and biking (curtailment) is more effective yet. The same is true of dryers…a new dryer saves some energy, but if you live a conducive climate, and can always line dry, curtailment is better.

    As it applies to greens, most have probably already taken efficiency steps, so curtailment is the only path left, so would tend to mark it as a higher priority.

  • By Kosmo @ The Soap Boxers, August 31, 2010 @ 8:32 am

    If you think swicthing to CFLs is trivial, what about people who insist they are saving tons of energy by turning off their computer at night instead of sleeping it?

    It definitely saves SOME energy, but not nearly as much as people would expect. If your computer is relatively efficient in sleep mode, you could save more by swapping out a few bulbs for CFLs (not that I’m suggesting this is a huge energy saver either).

    My employer (large Fortune 500 company) insists that the recent initiative to shut down computer at night is saving lots of money. Based on their numbers, it seems that they are expecting that the computer would be at absolute max utilization at night. Even then, when you divide the quoted savings by the number of employees, the numbers is not really mind-blowing.

    I prefer not to lose the productive time in the morning, so I just set my computer to sleep :)

    I analyzed this a bit more deeply a while ago:

  • By mwarden, September 2, 2010 @ 12:07 pm


    Your fundamental mistake is that you are presenting economic waste and energy waste as different things. They are the same thing.

  • By Bluto, September 30, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

    Speaking of this, I lived in a state that exported energy to California during the power crisis 2002ish, so power rates were very high (since they could sell power to California for a very high rate).

    At the time I worked in an office with a large picture window that faced south and preferred the natural sun to florescent lights. However unlike most of the staff, I preferred my two 19″ CRTs to their two 15″ LCDs. Once day my boss came around and mentioned that he was going to write me up for an award for saving energy. (CRTs use several times more energy than LCD screens and florescent lights but gave at the time a much higher resolution picture).

    Also on cans/bottles, aluminium is very difficult to separate from its ores, which isn’t as true for almost every other material.

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