on September 1st, 2010

Dear Colleagues

Most people tend to underestimate or misunderstand energy savings – according to the latest research that is. We tend to focus on insignificant savings such as upgrading light bulbs and twiddling thermostats. Most people grasp the broad and basic issues about energy savings; but they are decidedly unsure about the details, especially when estimating. Apparently participants in the research underestimated both energy use and savings by almost a factor of 3. They also tended to grossly underestimate the massive energy savings that could come from tweaking larger machines such as heaters and clothes dryers. Most people tend to focus on small savings such as switching off lights and ignored (as a typical example) the greater savings from switching their washing machines from hot to warm settings which saves 4kWh for each load of laundry.

It would appear that human psychology causes us to adopt a familiar yardstick (such as the familiar electric light bulb) and then to use this as a benchmark to make predictions. The estimates of savings then tend to cluster around this yard stick (psychologists call this process ‘anchoring’). As a result we tend to grossly underestimate the savings that could be made. Naturally, if the average person used a larger yardstick (beyond the light bulb) the problem may be less pervasive. And if we are good at maths (or arithmetic), we are likely to have a considerably lower level of error.

Based on this, there is probably a case for idiot proof energy saving devices that indicate exactly how much energy we consume.

What can be done?

  • Expect people with a limited background in maths to underestimate energy savings.
  • Encourage people to focus on the opportunities to squeeze tiny percentage savings from larger machines, resulting in significant savings, rather than focusing on the smaller items and smaller savings.
  • Guard against the ‘anchoring effect” when estimating - practiced unintentionally either by yourself or others.
  • Naturally, I am not knocking looking at the small things when undertaking energy savings, but merely pointing out the need to also focus on (often quite simply) the ‘bigger fruit’.

Thanks to the National Academy of Sciences (and the Economist) for an interesting piece of research.

Never overestimate what others do. As Cory Doctorow said “Engineers are all basically high-functioning autistics who have no idea how normal people do stuff.”



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