Toss old lessons about saving energy out the window

Growing up with a closet Jewish father raised in hiding in World War II Europe meant I learned a lot of life lessons.

Many were absolutely useless:
  • Don't turn on the furnace until Thanksgiving. He lived in Seattle, which meant ice-cold floors in the morning and layers of clothing at all times.
  • Save everything. The basement of my father's tiny house was crammed with plastic containers, old paint from 50-plus years of unfinished projects, a dismantled motorcycle, an old claw-foot tub filled with garden hoses, tables, our old foam-leaking sofa from the 1960s and pick-up load of empty egg cartons.
  • Turn off all lights. My Hungarian grandmother switched off all the lights and spent evenings using only the light of the TV to do her needlework.
There were more (just thinking about them makes me groan), but it's penchant for turning off lights that my family shared with a majority of the American public. A recent report that I first caught sight of on says that when asked for the most effective energy-saving strategy, most participants in an online survey mentioned turning off lights and driving less rather than installing more efficient light bulbs and appliances. This conflicts with experts’ recommendations, according to "Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings," a survey of about 500 by Shahzeen Z. Attaria, Michael L. DeKayb, Cliff I. Davidsonc and Wändi Bruine de Bruinc.

They hail from Columbia University, Ohio State University, Carnegie Mellon University and the editor came from Harvard. The study was published online this week in the scientific research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They didn't paint an overly pretty picture of the general public's understanding of energy efficiency, through which energy savings of more than 30 percent can be achieved through better lighting, improved air conditioning and heating, variable frequecy drive electric motors, cool roofs and insulation.

"For a sample of 15 activities, participants underestimated energy use and savings by a factor of 2.8 on average," the study said. "If households effectively implemented all of (Gerald) Gardner and (Paul) Stern’s (who published "The Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S. Households Can Take to Curb Climate Change" in Environment Magazine in 2008) recommended changes, U.S. energy consumption would be reduced by approximately 11 percent."

Big stuff. But at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, we know that. Using compact fluorescent lighting, dumping the old appliances for Energy Star units and upgrading the AC -- it all saves cash. And the upgrades pay for themselves relatively quickly.

"Those in the study also overrated the savings of many activities, including driving slowly on the highway, recycling glass containers or unplugging chargers when not in use," wrote Katherine Tweed of "Even people who described themselves as having a high degree of pro-environmental behavior did not always report engaging in a large number energy-efficient habits and actions."

No surprise there. I like to think I'm pro-environment but I enjoy the comforts of fossil fuels, a warm house in winter and AC. Even so, all of us could do with a little painless energy efficiency retrofits. It'll get that foreign oil monkey on our backs to ease up a little.