How to motivate yourself and others to save

Over the years I’ve collected a number of interesting energy saving facts that I use to remind myself how important it is to conserve. I dole out these facts to friends to help them see the value of saving energy. The best energy saving facts are those that help you understand how much energy you can save (and money too of course), but also how much environmental good you can do by saving.

One of the best energy efficiency facts I’ve come up with, based on a conversation I had with a coal plant engineer in Ohio way back in 1989, is how much coal it takes to produce a kilowatt hour of electricity. (Part of my general obsession with energy efficiency is that I have a tendency to call coal plant engineers out of the blue!) According to him, one ton of the coal used in his plant produces about two megawatt hours of electricity. Since a ton is 2,000 pounds, and two megawatt hours is 2,000 kilowatt hours, this gives us an easy-to-remember energy saving fact:

If your electricity is generated wholly from coal, then every kilowatt hour of electricity you save means one less pound of coal being burnt.

That’s not always true of course. If you use a higher or lower grade of coal, or burn it in a more or less efficient coal-fired power plant, it might take as little as 0.8 pounds per kilowatt hour. Or it might take as much as 1.25 pounds. A Wikipedia article suggests a figure of 966 pounds of coal for 876 kilowatt hours, which is 1.1 lbs per kilowatt hour.

But a nice round number like 1 pound of coal per kilowatt hour helps us remember how much good we can do for the environment by cutting our energy use a little. And even if your electricity is generated from hydroelectric or other cleaner sources, remember that every kilowatt hour you pull off the grid means one more kilowatt hour that your more green energy source can send somewhere else – which in North America often means one less pound of coal being burnt.

Now let’s look at CO2 emissions from coal. Assuming a typical carbon content of 78% for coal, burning that pound of coal produces 2.86 pounds of CO2.

What about other polluting emissions from coal? Again, it depends on what coal was used. My green electricity provider in Ontario gave me this energy saving fact: every pound of CO2 I avoid producing by using the electricity they generate, prevents 0.75 grams of nitric oxide emissions and 1.74 grams of sulfur dioxide emissions. That doesn’t sound like much, but remember that nitric oxide is a major contributor to smog and a little goes a long way. Anyone living downstream of the Ohio Valley, where most of the electricity is produced from very dirty coal, can attest to that. And sulfur dioxide is a major cause of acid rain.

Then there’s the question of the efficiency of coal-fired combustion. Steam cycle engines such as the turbines used in most coal-fired plants have a theoretical maximum efficiency of 35 to 42% conversion of heat energy into electricity. (Combined cycle plants can reach efficiencies up to 60% but few such plants actually exist.) And around 6-8% of the electricity generated is then lost as heat during transmission from the generating source to the location where it’s used. So at worst, you are getting about 32% of the heat energy from coal converted to electricity at your meter, and at best, around 40%.

You can use starting energy saving facts and some simple math to come up with other energy saving facts. And you can think of energy saving facts in personal terms (what you can do in your own home), and in broader terms. Let’s call the things you do yourself personal impacts.

For instance, suppose you decide to use your new knowledge of energy efficiency to convince some friends and neighbors to try the same energy saving tips you have tried. Suppose you get your entire block to try out my energy saving checklist, or convince your children’s school to take on an energy saving challenge like turning off all classroom lights whenever it’s sunny out and the natural lighting is enough to light the classroom. Let’s call these community impacts.

Finally, there are the broader impacts. For simplicity, let’s limit the broader impact of an energy saving action to North Americans (some of the biggest energy users in the world). Americans and Canadians combined use on average 7,845 kilograms of energy equivalent per year (KGOE/yr). One KGOE is equivalent to the amount of energy you would get by burning 1 kilogram of oil. We use on average 12,875 kilowatt hours per year of electricity per person, or 35 kilowatt hours per day. These figures are for total energy used, including industrial, commercial, residential, and transportation. Since is mainly interested in residential consumption, which in the US accounts for 21% of total energy use, let’s reduce those numbers accordingly to reflect residential use only:

1,647 kilograms of oil equivalent energy use per capita in North America every year

557 billion tons of oil equivalent energy use in North America every year

2,703 kilowatt hours of electricity use per capita in North America every year, or 7.4 kilowatt hours/day

914 million megawatt hours of electricity use in North America every year.

Let’s consider the broader impact of an energy saving action to be what it would mean if everyone in North America undertook that action. If you’re from another country and want to come up with your own energy saving facts based on your region’s population and energy use, use the following Google searches to find the Wikipedia entries on population and per capita energy use. energy use per capita by country population by country

OK, now that we’ve defined personal, community, and broader impacts and started with some initial energy saving facts, let’s look at some energy saving facts on each of these levels.

Energy saving fact: CFLs save energy!

A 13 watt compact fluorescent light (CFL) produces the same light as a 60-watt incandescent bulb. It also lasts about 10 times longer than a typical incandescent. Let’s assume a cost of $0.10 per kilowatt hour for electricity, a cost of $0.50 per incandescent and a cost of $3 per CFL (yes, you can get them for that little now). Let’s assume each light is used an average of 2 hours per day.

Incandescent Compact fluorescent
Years of bulb life 1.37 13.7
Cost per year for bulb $0.37 $0.22
Kilowatt hours used per year 43.8 9.5
Energy cost per year $4.38 $0.95
Total cost per year $4.75 $1.17
Pounds of coal equivalent/year 43.8 9.5
Pounds of CO2 from coal/year 125 27

Personal impact: if you replace just one incandescent that is used at least 2 hours a day, with a CFL that produces the same amount of light, you’ll save $3.58 per year – enough to pay for that bulb within the first year, compared to the incandescent. If your electricity came entirely from coal generation, you would cut your CO2 emissions by 98 pounds or 44 kg per year, or 0.6 tons over the life of the bulb. Put another way, you’d save the burning of 470 pounds of coal over the life of the bulb. That’s about how much coal it would take to fill your bathtub about a foot deep in coal! If you live in a modest home like mine of about 1,400 square feet, with 8-foot ceilings, the CO2 emissions saved work out to enough to fill your entire house with CO2! Not that you’d want to do that, but it gives you a feel for how much CO2 you’d be avoiding by using just one more CFL in place of an incandescent.

Community impact: If you spent $60 of your own money, and gave a CFL to each of 20 neighbors and friends (including yourself), and followed up with them to make sure they used it in a high-use fixture (2+ hours per use per day), you’d be generating $70 per year in economic benefits in your neighborhood – money your neighbors could spend in their community instead of on potentially polluting electricity generation. More importantly, you’d be helping cut your community’s energy use by 686 kilowatt hours per year, or 686 pounds less coal equivalent. Call your local hardware store or building supply center. They might even give you a bulk discount, in exchange for a little local PR on your greening efforts.

Broader impact: If every household in North America changed one more incandescent to a CFL in a high-use fixture, assuming an average household size of 3 people, we would generate approximately $400 million in energy savings per year, and in terms of CO2 equivalent of coal, we’d reduce our emissions by 5 million tons of CO2 per year.

Energy saving fact: Programmable thermostats save energy

A programmable thermostat or setback thermostat allows you to select a comfortable temperature (for either heating or air conditioning) while you are up and about, with an energy-saving temperature when you are away for long periods (e.g. at work), and when you’re asleep, during which time a cooler winter temperature or warmer summer temperature is usually both more comfortable and more efficient. Even out of the box, a typical programmable thermostat with its default program can save up to 30% on your heating and AC bills.

Let’s assume you use a central air conditioner three months a year and heat your house five months a year – a fairly typical usage for my home town of Toronto, Canada. (If you’re in a colder area you probably use AC less and heat more; if you’re a typical Phoenix resident, you probably use AC all the time. Either way, you’re using energy to heat or cool your home much of the year.) If we assume that your air conditioners use an average of 30 kilowatt hours on peak heat days (30 days/year), and 10 kilowatt hours on hot but not scorching days (60 days/year), you’d be using somewhere around 1,500 kilowatt hours to air condition your home, for about $150 per year. Heating a typical midsized home in Toronto will cost you around 500 CCF (one CCF is one hundred cubic feet), or perhaps $1,000 per year in natural gas costs.

Personal impact: Install a programmable thermostat and modify its default settings to reduce the amount of energy required both to heat and to cool. For example, my thermostat’s factory default settings are 70F for heating and 78F for cooling when awake and at home, 62F for heating and 85F for cooling when asleep or out of the house. I’ve adjusted my heating settings to: 65F instead of 70F for heating when awake and 58F instead of 62F for heating when asleep or absent. This takes a little getting used to; it means we wear sweaters and slippers at home in the winter, and have down comforters on our beds, but the savings really add up, and the cooler temperatures are actually better for your health. With these more ambitious settings you can cut your heating bill by 40% instead of 30%. For AC (which I don’t use) you could probably tolerate 82F instead of 78F when awake and at home, 87F instead of 85F when absent or asleep. Or, you could just turn off the AC overnight and open the windows if your nighttime temperatures drop to a tolerable level. With these settings you could cut your AC bill by 40% or more. So your savings would be:

  • 30% on 500 CCF of natural gas = 150 CCF or $300 per year in heating (at 40% you’d save 200 CCF or $400)
  • 30% on 1,500 kilowatt hours = 450 kilowatt hours or $45 in cooling (at 40% you’d save 600 kilowatt hours or $60)

Community impact: Suppose your local public school has an old, energy-inefficient boiler system and poor insulation. The school is probably open five days a week, from around 7:30 am. to 6:00 p.m. (or to 9:00 p.m. if there are community meetings there on weekday evenings). The chances are very good that the school is already using a programmable thermostat or a computerized heating control system. But since janitorial staff are sometimes more concerned with managing a large number of complicated tasks than with actual energy savings, they may not have set the thermostat or heating control system to optimal settings for conservation. The first thing you could do is ask to speak to the head janitor and find out what settings are being used. If no programmable thermostat is in place, convince your school board to install a programmable thermostat or heating control system. If one is in place, ensure it is set optimally for comfort during school hours and conservation during empty hours. For example, the thermostat can be set 4F F lower when the school is closed, during the heating season. My kids’ school has about 40 times the cubic footage of my home, and has significantly less insulation and a less efficient heating system. So let’s assume a starting consumption of 40 x 500 CCF (i.e. 40 times what a typical home uses), or 20,000 CCF of natural gas per winter. Since we’re only looking at a 4F differential instead of the factory-default 8F, let’s assume only 15% savings instead of 30%. Let’s leave electricity for air conditioning out of the equation and look at just the heating impact. So the savings would be:

  • 15% of 20,000 CCF of natural gas use per year, or 3,000 CCF.
  • Since one CCF of natural gas produces roughly 1.5 pounds of CO2 emissions, that’s 4,500 pounds of saved CO2 emissions.

Broader impact: Let’s assume many North Americans already have a programmable thermostat in their home (after all, every energy saving website and brochure has been touting these for years). If just another 20 million homes in North America were to install one (for example, if local, state/provincial, or national governments were to provide one free of charge to anyone who wanted one), the savings could add up to:

  • 30% on 500 CCF x 20 million homes = 3 billion CCF of natural gas or $6 billion per year in heating
  • 30% on 1,500 kilowatt hours x 20 million homes = 9 billion kilowatt hours of electricity or $900 million in cooling costs saved.

Energy saving fact: Most water heaters are set too high.

Most hot water heaters have too high a default hot water temperature setting. Few homeowners change this default setting. This can be both dangerous and wasteful. It can be dangerous because the default setting produces water hot enough that it can produce burns when skin comes into contact with water coming out of the hot tap only. It can be wasteful because 90% of the time a cooler hot water temperature is sufficient, and the 10% of the time when the full heat is required – chiefly in automatic dishwashers – the more efficient dishwashers already have built-in heating elements to warm the water to the required temperature. (In fact this is one of the ways in which ENERGY STAR-rated dishwashers get their high rating – if the only thing that needs 60C or 140F hot water is your dishwasher, the dishwasher might as well heat the water that extra few degrees, rather than force you to cool the hot water for every other use.)

The default hot water temperature setting on most water heaters is 60C or 140F, but a setting of 49C or 120F is both safer and far more efficient. Hot water heating makes up about 20-25% of the typical natural gas use in a gas heated house in a cold climate; lowering the temperature setting by 11C or 20F can cut your hot water costs by about 25%, and your overall natural gas use by 5-6%. That might mean:

  • 5% on 500 CCF of natural gas = 5 CCF or $10 per year in hot water costs
  • 7 pounds of CO2 emissions reductions.

That’s really not that much, but consider this: in countries like Costa Rica, just about no one has hot water – they do dishes, laundry, hand-washing with cold water only. (It doesn’t hurt that their year-round warm temperatures mean water out of the tap is a balmy 18C.) They have hot showers using electric shower heads, which, like an ENERGY STAR dishwasher, only heats the water where heat is truly needed. If the only place you really need water hot enough to comfortably shower in is the shower, you could set your hot water heater lower and use an electric shower head to add that extra boost of heat where needed.

Not only can you save energy lowering your hot water temperature, but if you have an electric hot water tank you can save even more by putting your heater on a timer so that it doesn’t heat water at times you don’t need it (or at times when electricity is more expensive). Some customers of the water heater timer pictured at right have reported saving up to 20% on their home energy bill.

Community impact: Suppose you organized a table at your school fair or community event to publicize the importance of lowering hot water heater temperatures. If 20 people heeded your advice and took action in their homes, you’d save:

  • 20 X $10 per year in hot water costs, or $200 that people in your community could spend in the community
  • 20 x 7 pounds or 140 pounds of CO2 emissions reductions
  • Possibly several badly scalded hands!

Broader impact: If 50 million North American homes lowered their hot water heater temperature appropriately, the savings would add up to:

  • 50,000,000 x 5 CCF = 250 million CCF or half a billion dollars in savings
  • 7 x 50,000,000 pounds of CO2 or 160,000 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Energy saving fact: Recycled aluminum cans save a huge amount of money

Aluminum can be manufactured from bauxite, a naturally occurring mineral containing a high percentage of aluminum oxide. The aluminum oxide is extracted from the bauxite and converted to metallic aluminum through a process that uses a large amount of electricity. Consider the amount of electrical energy required to manufacture the aluminum in one aluminum beer can. Surprisingly, it corresponds to the amount of energy that could be obtained by burning half an aluminum beer can worth of gasoline. So the next time you see a beer can lying on the side of the road, imagine it half full of gasoline; that’s how much energy you’ll be saving by picking it up and sending it to be recycled.

Personal impact: If you don’t already recycle all aluminum cans in your home, start doing it now! (Even if you don’t have local recycling pick-up, there are usually individuals or businesses who will pick up your scrap metal for free if you have enough, so start saving! You can even get money yourself for the cans if you trek them to the recycling station or scrap metal yard on your own.) Assuming you go through 24 cans of soft drinks or alcoholic beverages in a month, and you aren’t already recycling them, you would save:

  • 24 x 341 milliliters x 50% = 4 liters or just over 1 gallon gasoline, or 48 liters / 12 gallons per year.
  • 10 kilograms or 22 pounds of CO2 emissions per year, assuming the electricity that would have been used to produce net new aluminum had come from coal-fired electricity.
  • Assuming you live in a state or province that has bottle and can deposit laws, you might even get 5 or 10 cents per can returned. That could add up to as much as $2.40 per month or $28 per year in extra cash in your pocket.

Community impact: If you don’t have recycling in your neighborhood or in your apartment building, organize it! The more aluminum cans you gather, the easier it will be to find someone to haul them away to a recycling facility and even pay you for the privilege. If you do have recycling, do a survey of your neighbors and find out how many of them are really recycling all their aluminum cans. You may be surprised at how low compliance is, even in places where recycling is mandatory. Raise people’s awareness with the half-can-of-gasoline metaphor, and challenge your neighbors to do better. Suppose you got an extra 20 people to recycle ten extra aluminum cans each every month:

  • 200 cans = 68 liters or 18 gallons of gasoline energy equivalent savings per month; 800+ liters or 216 gallons per year.
  • 163 kilograms or 360 pounds of CO2 emissions per year, again assuming coal would have been used to generate the electricity used to create that aluminum from raw materials instead of recycling it.

Broader impact: It’s estimated that over 49 billion aluminum cans are landfilled in North America every year. That’s the energy equivalent of wasting 54 million barrels of oil. North American daily consumption of oil is roughly 27 million barrels, so we’d save about the same amount of energy that is used in oil-based products (gasoline, diesel, airline fuel, heating oil, etc.) in a typical 48-hour period – two days! If that electricity weren’t used to manufacture replacement aluminum to make replacement cans, it could be used to avoid burning coal worth about 45 million tons of CO2 emissions.

Energy saving fact: garbage contains energy

When you throw out household stuff, you’re throwing out the embodied energy used to make it!

When you do spring cleaning, do you just put all the stuff you no longer want in the trash, or haul it to the dump? If you do, you’re wasting a lot of energy.

When you find a new home for something you no longer need, you can both make a little money yourself (or commit an act of charity), and save a little energy for the world. Consider an old rusty bicycle. If you put it in the trash, there’s a good chance it gets buried in a landfill. That means all the energy that went into smelting the steel frame is lost to humankind forever. (Another energy saving fact: scrap metal is America’s #1 export commodity!) But if you give it away – through a site like, by calling your local community bicycle association, or giving it away at a street sale – someone will fix it up, put new parts on it, and make it serviceable again. That’s one more bicycle on the roads for no new energy input (except for replacement parts, of course). The person who gets that bike either would not have a bike, or would have to buy a new one, if you had thrown it in the trash.

The same applies to furniture, toys, clothing, just about everything people tend to throw out during major clean-ups. There are charities that will take most household items you no longer need, and find a new home for them. You can give stuff away online on sites like I’ve even given neighbors’ stuff away: if I see furniture on the curb on trash pickup day, I post an entry on my local and tell people there’s a free couch, bedframe, whatever on such and such a street, first come first served. As soon as I see the item has been taken, I remove the posting.

You can make money on the stuff you no longer want, too. Sell it on craigslist, or on e-bay, or at a yard sale. I often save up scrap metal in my basement until I have about 50 pounds of it; I then post an ad on craigslist announcing free scrap metal for pick-up, and usually within an hour I have someone committed to coming to my house to pick it up.

Personal impact: Let’s look at the implications of this energy saving fact for the example of the bicycle. A typical bicycle frame contains about 4 pounds of steel. It takes about 1.6 kilowatt hours to smelt one pound of steel from ore, or 6.4 kwh for our bike frame. That’s equivalent to 6.4 pounds of coal.

Steel is usually smelted using coal, and it takes 0.7 pounds of coal to smelt one pound of steel. So our 4 pound bike frame takes 2.8 pounds of coal to smelt. That combined with the electricity works out to the energy equivalent of 9.2 pounds of coal.

Community impact: You organize a street sale or school rummage sale to raise money for a charity. You encourage everyone to bring out their old, unwanted stuff. Let’s say 100 pounds of steel and 20 pounds of aluminum are among the mix of things that get bought during the sale. Since it takes about 7.2 kwh (or pounds of coal) to smelt one pound of aluminum, and 2.5 pounds of coal to smelt one pound of steel, your street or rummage sale would have saved (2.5 x 100) and (7.2 x 20), or 394 pounds of coal energy equivalent.

Broader impact: If 1 milllion households gave away an old bike or other unwanted item with an equal amount of embodied energy, or recycled items containing an equivalent amount of metal instead of sending it to the landfill, we’d save the energy equivalent of 9.2 million pounds of coal.

Energy saving fact: Beer fridges are huge electricity wasters.

While we’re on the topic of beer cans, consider the humble beer fridge. Maybe you have one; maybe you know a friend who does. Here’s how a beer fridge works: sometime in the past – maybe five, maybe twenty years ago, you (or a previous inhabitant of your house) replaced an old, inefficient refrigerator with a new, hopefully more energy efficient one. And the old one, instead of being scrapped, was moved to your basement or a spare room (or the boathouse if you were replacing your cottage fridge), and has been used ever since to keep beer cold, or to store overflow food when you don’t have enough room after a big shop or a big Thanksgiving dinner in the regular fridge.

Guess what – a 10 year old fridge is probably half as efficient as an ENERGY STAR rated fridge made today. And a 20 year old fridge is probably half again as efficient – not just because they weren’t built to as high a standard back then, but because gaskets start to leak, dust builds up on the coils and doesn’t get cleaned off, insulation in the fridge wall degrades, and so on.

Measuring your fridge electricity use

If you really want to use the least energy possible on refrigeration, you should definitely read my Energy saving refrigerators page.

And if you have an old refrigerator and are wondering how much electricity it uses, you can measure its consumption (and the electricity consumption of just about any other 120V electric appliance that has an outlet plug) using the Kill A Watt meter, pictured at right. For full details on measuring your appliances with this device or others like it, see my Kill A Watt page.

So you are potentially using up to 4 times as much electricity on the beer fridge as on the new fridge in your kitchen. And how much cold beer (or rotting turkey) do you really need!? Unplug that fridge and save big time!

In case you think I’m making this up: beer fridges are such a big waster of electricity that the provincial electricity generator in Ontario launched a major ad campaign a few years back to get people to give up on their beer fridges! Someone in the know takes this pretty seriously!

Personal impact: Suppose you get rid of your own beer fridge (and have it picked up by professionals who will safely remove the CFC refrigerant in it, of course). Since an ENERGY STAR rated fridge uses around 1-1.5 kilowatt hours per day (depending on features and cubic feet of contents), and a beer fridge could use 2-4 times as much, you could be saving between 2 and 6 kilowatt hours per day of electricity, or:

  • 730 to 2200 kilowatt hours per year, which might save you $73 to $220 in electricity costs
  • 2,080 to 6,300 pounds of CO2 emissions if the electricity comes from coal, and even if your source of electricity is green, assuming your not using that electricity would allow someone else to use it who normally gets their energy from coal.

Community impact: Make it your mission, every time you go to a party at a friend or neighbor’s house, to keep an eye out for the beer fridge. If there is one, guess its age (it’s not too hard to figure out how many decades old a fridge is) and give your host a casual estimate of how much energy they could save – roughly 1 kilowatt hour per day for each decade of age if they replace it with the latest model, plus an extra kilowatt hour per day if they just got rid of it. I did this for a friend when I was replacing a ten-year-old fridge of mine; the old fridge was actually still very energy efficient (I know, I measured it), and I got $100 for the old fridge, and my friend saved himself about $35 a year in electricity costs without sacrificing his beer fridge! Anyhow, assuming you convince five friends to give up their beer fridge altogether:

  • 3500 or more kilowatt hours, or $350 per year, of electricity savings in your community
  • Five or more tons of CO2 emissions if the saved electricity would have come from coal.

Broader impact: If just 1 million North Americans were to retire and not replace that old, inefficient second fridge, we could save:

  • 365 million kilowatt hours per year of electricity, meaning about $36 million that could be spent on things that actually made life more worthwhile (more hairdos, more meals out, more charitable donations, whatever!)
  • One billion pounds, or half a million tons, of CO2 emissions.

Build your own energy saving facts!

You can come up with your own energy saving facts doing a little research and using some simple rules of thumb. None of the rules I’ve used is precise or even entirely accurate – though I’ve tried to make them realistic. Accuracy and precision is not the point. The point is to give people a general idea of how much we waste now, and how much we could save. And what the consequences would be if one, or a few, or many, or all of us were more ambitious in tackling our savings. So here are the rules I use – most of which you can find in the text above:

  • 1 kwh of electricity generated from coal uses 1 pound of coal and produces 2.86 pounds of CO2.
  • 1 kwh of electricity costs on average 10 cents (somewhere between 7 and 25 cents, or sometimes an even wider range if your rate depends on time-of-day usage)
  • Electricity saved translates into coal not burned – even if your default electricity provider uses mainly non-coal-related sources – because your not burning green electricity means some other electricity user can grab that green electricity and not require some fossil-fuel-based plant to produce that electricity.
  • One CCF of natural gas goes for about $2. In fact the rate varies widely by region and season, but you need something to fabricate figures with! Two years ago I was paying $1 per CCF but my rates have nearly doubled since then!
  • One CCF of natural gas produces 1.5 pounds CO2 emissions.
  • There are 300 million residents in North America living in about 100 million homes.

Beyond that, to build your own energy saving facts, look at the particular energy use; figure out the savings for one person or household; use the above rules of thumb or your own to figure out personal impact; and multiply by 5 or 10 or 20 to come up with community impacts, and by 100 million or more to come up with the broader impacts.

Now you can really wow people at parties! (While you’re watching out for that hidden beer fridge!)

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