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Just Say Know to Energy

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Author: the Inkslinger

A new survey
out from an environmental marketing firm called EcoAlign has found that a large percentage of Americans lack a basic understanding of the fundamental energy efficiency terms we’ll need to know in order to get smart about energy use.

The survey of 1,000 people asked them to match a handful of key energy terms (Energy Conservation, Energy Efficiency, Demand Response, Smart Energy, Clean Energy) to provided definitions. Then interviewers asked the same respondents to simply define these terms themselves without any help. The results could be seen as slightly alarming. For example, according to EcoAlign’s analysts:

  • Only 13% of respondents think energy efficiency has to do with saving money or cutting down on fuel costs.
  • Just a third of respondents could correctly define “energy conservation” and energy efficiency.”
  • Only about one third, 30%, of Americans understand the term “smart energy” and about the same amount, 32%, say they are not doing enough in terms of “smart energy.”
  • 14% couldn’t match clean energy with its definition.

It’s tempting to look at numbers like these and be slightly if not completely dismayed. But should we be? I don’t think so.

For one thing, this is a survey, and as someone who worked in the public opinion research field for 10 long years, I can tell you that surveys are fraught with all kinds of problems from “cross section” samples of telephone numbers that aren’t a cross section at all to analysts who couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag yet alone compose a decent unbiased questionnaire to high schooler interviewers who botch the asking and recording of questions and answers with disturbing regularity. Having supervised literally thousands of phone surveys, I can tell you that you have take poll numbers with a grain of salt the size of my house. Only on a very general level do they tell you anything. And you also have to consider who’s doing them. Because in market research it’s real easy to get whatever you’re looking for. In this case, we have a “green” marketing firm that would profit handsomely from a befuddled public announcing that that public is indeed befuddled.

And that’s not true. Let’s get real here. From a consumer perspective, is there really a meaningful difference between “energy conservation” and “energy efficiency”? They’re two sides of the same coin. Technically, yes, they are a tad different, but practically they’re fairly well identical. They’re both about using less energy to do the same work. If you are conserving energy, you are being energy efficient. And vice versa. There really isn’t any difference from an action perspective. Even EcoAlign’s own definitions are just different words that say the same basic thing.

Similarly, when they say that only 13% of people equate energy efficiency with saving money on fuel and electricity bills, what does that mean? My guess is nothing. If they’re getting these responses from open-ended questions (i.e. questions that don’t have pre-set answers to choose from but instead just let respondent answer off the top of their heads), it likely means respondents just didn’t think of the money-saving angle at the moment they were answering the question. Or that they tend to equate economic savings with “energy conservation” instead. Because absolutely everyone I know, from the most keenly informed to the tremendously clueless knows that if you use less oil or electricity you’re gonna have lower bills. Even my dog knows this much. They may not call using compact fluorescent light bulbs “energy efficiency,” but they understand that if they use a bunch of them, they’re going to have a lower utility bill from Central Vermont Public Service.

The moral here is really twofold. For one, as much as a marketing company like EcoAlign might like to wish there was some level of consumer confusion about energy use that they could white-knightishly clear up for paying clients, there really isn’t any. Everyone understands the basics, and the basics are all that really matters. Which is point two: as much as marketing companies might like for the situation to require lots of (expensive) explaining to consumers, it doesn’t need any. At all. In fact, I would argue that the simpler we can make things, the easier it will be for everyone to understand to act on the issues involved. We don’t need to get bogged down in the definitional minutiae of things like smart energy and demand response. Who cares? We just have to use less energy and make sure that the energy we do use comes from emissions-free sources. Save Energy. Save Money. Save CO2. Save Earth. That’s as complicated as the explanations or the understanding needs to be or should ever get.