Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What Does an Energy Survey Tell Us?

Green Car Congress points to a recent study in which survey participants indicated their perceptions about the relative efficacy of various energy-saving actions.  The abstract for the paper makes a large deal out of the observation that when asked which strategies they could implement to save energy, many more people chose curtailment than efficiency.  In other parts of the survey, participants demonstrated a general lack of knowledge about efficiency differences in various activities; for example, that moving freight by rail uses much less energy than moving the same freight by long-haul truck.

Perhaps because I've gotten old and cynical, I am often suspicious of surveys.  It is simply too easy to slant the survey questions, intentionally or not, and affect the outcome.  In this particular case, the paper includes an appendix with the survey questions.  Some of the questions are clearly tests of basic numeracy: if you replace a 100 watt light bulb with a 75 watt bulb for one hour, how many energy units are saved?  (Energy units are watt-hours, although that term is never used.)  Other questions are tests of broad knowledge about energy consumption.  How many energy units would be saved by drying a load of laundry on a clothesline instead of in a dryer?  Rank-order the efficiency of planes, trains, trucks, and ships for freight transport.

The concern — people choosing curtailment over efficiency — would appear to be the result of the very first question in the survey: "In your opinion, what is the most effective thing that you could do to conserve energy in your life?"  I have two complaints about drawing conclusions from this question.  The first is that it is the first question in the survey.  IMO, this should have been the last of the energy-related questions.  Placed first, and phrased the way it is, I think people would be inclined to think in terms of what changes they could make in their day-to-day activities that would save energy.  If that is the case, it is not surprising that answers like "turn off the lights", "turn down the thermostat", and "drive fewer miles" would be most common.

In practice, the things that are most effective are matters of efficiency and all require up-front investments.  Improving mileage from 20 MPG to 30 MPG requires purchasing a new vehicle.  Improving appliance efficiency means buying new appliances.  Once you have done the simplest weatherizing activities, improvements require major efforts such as replacing windows or insulating walls.  For renters, many of these are simply not options.  For the poor, investments are always difficult: the fact that a new $750 refrigerator will save more than that in energy costs over five years is immaterial if you don't have $750 in cash or credit available to you.

The same investment problem arises when you look at things like freight transportation.  Rail is much more efficient that long-haul trucking.  But the trucking industry provides scheduled service: load the trailer in Denver today, and the trucking company promises to deliver it to St. Louis the day after tomorrow.  Railroads no longer operate scheduled freight trains.  Load the boxcar in Denver today, and the rail carrier will deliver it to St. Louis when they can assemble a full train going that way.  Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week.  Either the railroads must invest in the equipment to allow them scheduled service, or businesses must invest in inventory.  Given the rise of just-in-time supply chains, and the decision by the railroads to give up scheduled freight service, businessmen simply don't think in terms of "I could switch from truck to rail for shipping."

I think the important result of the survey is not the matter of ignorance raised by the authors, but rather that the results demonstrate the participants' aversion to investment.  Politicians, whatever their other faults, are generally shrewd judges of their constituencies.  Much of the insanity in current US energy policy debate is because the politicians understand voters' aversion to having to make personal investments in efficiency.  One of the things that makes ethanol attractive, politically, is that it holds out the hope that people won't have to buy new cars.

The two biggest challenges in getting sane energy policy implemented are (1) convincing people that large personal investments are necessary and (2) settling on which investments are the ones that need to be made.  Most of the debate today involves (2); but (1) is likely to be more difficult to accomplish.

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