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NSF GRFP 2013 Proposed Research

March 29, 2013

Developing an Energy Literacy Test Focusing on Misconceptions to Reduce the Energy Efficiency Gap

Introduction: There is an urgent need to reduce energy consumption to mitigate the ill effects of climate change, a consequence of high GHG emissions from electricity generation. U.S. residential energy consumption, which contributes 22% of U.S. carbon emissions, could be reduced by 20% in 10 years via established energy efficiency and conservation strategies.[1] Yet, an energy efficiency gap, in which consumer behavior does not reflect the environmental and economic potential of existing energy efficiency technology, persists because consumers (a) have a limited understanding of the most effective strategies for saving energy and (b) are not motivated to reduce energy use.[2] As an example of consumers’ limited understanding, when asked to identify the “most effective strategy”, many focus on conservation behavior (ex. turning off lights) rather than more effective energy-efficiency improvements (ex. switching to CFLs).[3]

Consequently, there is a compelling need for an energy literacy test, defined as the ability to make informed choices about energy use, to systematically identify the prevalence of decision-relevant misconceptions, inform energy literacy programs, and evaluate the effectiveness of interventions. I will build on an existing adolescent energy literacy test, which measures broad energy knowledge, affect and behavior.[4] However, there is a need for a validated test designed for adults, who make most household energy use decisions. Therefore, I propose to design an energy literacy test that measures (a) understanding of personal options for using and saving energy in the home and (b) how personal and energy choices affect the environment. Through the development of this measure, which focuses on contextual determinants such as available choices, I will contribute towards our understanding of how to reduce the energy efficiency gap.[2]

Link to previous research: This proposal builds on my previous work, in which I found that both high and low numeracy individuals better understand tables of electricity use information rather than graphs. Using a shortened version of the adolescent energy literacy test, I found that energy knowledge had a significant effect on the understanding of numerical electricity use information. Given the role of existing energy knowledge in interpreting energy information, more research is necessary to determine the extent of existing misconceptions about energy saving behavior.

Research Objective: Using the well-established mental models approach [5], I intend to understand the gaps and misconceptions of people’s home energy-use knowledge. Following the mental models approach, this work has 4 aims:

Aim 1: Construct expert and lay people mental models. Conduct a literature review and interview experts to assess what lay people need to know to make informed decisions about their home energy use (ranging e.g. weatherization, appliance use, and purchasing decisions). Conduct interviews to examine how lay people actually make decisions about home energy use and savings, as well as to identify the barriers they face to implementing informed decisions (e.g., misconceptions about conservation vs. energy efficiency).

Aim 2: Using wording from the interviews, design knowledge test items that cover expert-identified decision-relevant facts, especially those that appear to create barriers to making informed decisions, to accurately reflect the real-world decision space (ecological validity).

Aim 3: Assess the reliability of this test in terms of (a) factor analysis, (b) internal consistency or Cronbach’s alpha and inter-item correlations for identified factors, and (c) test–retest reliability.

Aim 4: Assess the validity of this test in terms of (a) nomological validity via correlations with level of education, especially in energy-relevant fields (ex. engineering), as well as other energy-relevant experience (ex. previous participation in energy efficiency programs), and (b) predictive validity via correlations to self-reported energy efficiency and conservation behavior, after controlling for education and other energy-relevant experience.

Methods: The mental models approach begins with a literature review and expert interviews to develop an expert mental model of what lay people should know about energy saving behavior. Next, mental models are elicited from lay people via semi- structured interviews. These mental models are then compared to identify misconceptions and knowledge gaps of lay people.

After developing an initial measure using language from the interviews, I will perform pilot tests with lay people to refine the measure to achieve high reliability and validity. High reliability implies that the answers to the survey are not contradictory, relatively stable, and highly correlated. High nomological validity, a type of construct validity, implies that the measure fits into a network of expected relationships i.e. those with higher educational attainment should have higher energy literacy. High predictive validity implies that test performance is correlated with real-world behavior i.e. high energy literacy implies high energy-efficiency and conservation behavior.

Anticipated Findings: The proposed work will lead to a reliable and valid measure of energy literacy associated with real-world energy-saving behaviors. The process of developing this test may illuminate how various determinants interact to influence decision-making about residential energy use.

Broader Impacts: This research makes a unique contribution by designing an energy literacy test that is rooted in misconceptions rather than an understanding of general energy facts. This is important because misconceptions may significantly contribute to the energy efficiency gap. In addition, this work will allow researchers across disciplines to study differences in energy literacy across demographics to inform energy literacy programs and measure the effectiveness of interventions.

This work will be shared with industry through the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center (CEIC). In addition, I will submit my papers to the scientific meetings for the Society for Risk Analysis and the Society for Judgment and Decision Making, targeting both technical and social scientists. I will develop a hands-on workshop to address misconceptions about effective strategies for energy savings and provide access to improved outreach materials. I will offer this workshop to the community groups through which participants were recruited and at a CMU-sponsored climate-focused summer camp for high school students.

[1] Dietz, T., Gardner, G. T., Gilligan, J., Stern, P. C., & Vandenbergh, M. P. (2009). Household actions can provide a behavioral wedge to rapidly reduce US carbon emissions. PNAS, 106(44), 18452-6.

[2] Wilson, C., & Dowlatabadi, H. (2007). Models of Decision Making and Residential Energy Use. Annu. Rev. of Env. & Res., 32(1), 169–203.

[3] Attari, S. Z., DeKay, M. L., Davidson, C. I., & Bruine de Bruin, W. (2010). Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings. PNAS, 1–6.

[4] DeWaters, J. E., & Powers, S. E. (2011). Energy literacy of secondary students in New York State (USA) A measure of knowledge, affect, and behavior. Energy Policy, 1–12.

[5] Morgan, M. G., Fischhoff, B., Bostrom, A., & Atmand, C.J. (2001). Risk Communication: A Mental Models Approach. NY: Cambridge University Press.


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