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Columbia Study: Americans Have Little Idea How to Save Energy

Tuesday, August 17, 2010 - 03:56 PM

(Andrea Bernstein-Transportation Nation) Quick! Which saves more energy: line-drying your clothes or setting your washer to cold water wash? Drinking from a can with new aluminum or a bottle with recycled glass? How much more energy does it take to run central air than to run a room air conditioner? Do trucks consume twice as much energy to transport goods as trains -- or more? (Answers at the bottom)

If you're not sure, you're in the mainstream, according to a new Columbia University Survey. The survey found people tend to believe small actions -- like turning off lights, save more energy than they actually do. And that only a tiny fraction -- 11.7 percent -- cited insulating their homes or replacing inefficient appliances as the "most effective thing they could do to conserve energy." In fact these energy-saving measure are the most effective thing they can do.

When it comes to transportation, respondents similarly got it wrong.  They tended to overestimate the energy savings in driving more slowly, but significantly underestimate the gas saved by tuning up their cars twice a year.

When it came to transporting goods, respondents knew airplanes use more fuel than gas, but had no idea trucks use ten times as much gasoline as trains.  Most people said trucks and trains were about the same.

There's  a problem with the survey - it's not a randomized group, but a survey taken of Craigslist respondents, who were paid $10 for their efforts.   Study author  Shahzeen Z. Attari acknowledges that was a budget decision (truly randomized polls are costly to perform)  but maintains the group was sufficiently heterogeneous to produce meaningful responses.

Answers:  Cold water wash, aluminum, three and a half times as much energy, and ten times as much.

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