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Energy Use: The Human Dimension
sense of well-being. People commute from thermostatically controlled heated or cooled homes to heated or cooled workplaces in heated or cooled private cars. At home, people use picture windows to let in the visual aspect of the outside world without letting in any of its nuisance properties. This style of life implies the consumption of great amounts of energy, but when prices were low, there was no pressing need to be concerned about energy costs. The low economic cost and easy availability of energy made energy users relatively unaware of energy. As a result, energy was not a salient feature in family decisions about purchasing homes and automobiles or in organizational decisions about designing buildings or maintaining equipment—decisions with major implications for energy use.
This sort of energy unawareness can be reversed, given time, if price increases or other stimuli are strong enough to make energy salient. But the consequences of low-cost energy and material progress go deeper than unawareness. Energy has became invisible to consumers, so that even with some heightened awareness, they may be unable to take effective action. This is what we mean by the legacy of energy invisibility.
Some Roots of Misinformation
Consider the fact that for most households the only visible thing about energy is the bill. In some ways, there is less useful information in an energy bill than in the actual flow of fuel into a furnace. Energy bills are received relatively infrequently, and they generally aggregate a variety of uses into a single number. To illustrate the effect of this, Kempton and Montgomery (1982:817) ask people to imagine the parallel situation for grocery bills in
a store without prices on individual items, which presented only one total bill at the cash register. In such a store, the shopper would have to estimate item price by weight or packaging, by experimenting with different purchasing patterns, or by using consumer bulletins based on average purchases.
Obviously, few shoppers in such a store would be well informed about which changes in their purchases would most effectively lower grocery bills without sacrificing their essential items.
Yet for energy bills, especially electricity bills, that is the situation. A single bill combines the charges for several appliances, for lighting, and possibly for water heating, space heating, and cooling. It is impossible to tell, without careful monitoring and experimentation, how much of the bill results from each use or how much the bill could be decreased by using any particular appliance less or replacing it with another model.
The evidence shows that many energy users are ill-informed under this billing system. For example, most people cannot correctly rank the energy consumption of various household appliances and heating and cooling systems (Becker, Seligman, and Darley, 1979; Kempton, Harris, Keith,