Trends in Energy Literacy: A Local Perspective

This guest blog is written by Dr. Runa Das, Assistant Professor, Social Sciences at Royal Roads University

Energy is a central aspect of our lives. From fundamental needs, such as cooking and eating, to higher-level needs, such as reading and listening to music, energy provides us with the services and amenities that we have come to rely on. But how well do we actually understand it? More and more this is a question on a lot of people’s minds.

Between October 2015 and February 2016, 204 households in downtown Toronto completed an energy literacy survey. Torontonians were asked about their knowledge of energy and energy-related issues, such as knowledge of basic scientific facts, issues related to energy sources and resources, knowledge of energy trends in Canada, and knowledge of renewable and non-renewable sources of energy. Households were also asked about their environmental attitudes and values as well as the energy conservation and efficiency actions they were engaging in at home.

On the knowledge portion of the study, respondents found some questions more difficult than others. Surprisingly, only 58% of respondents knew that Ontario’s electricity is primarily generated from nuclear power. A similar finding, only 57% of respondents were aware that Ontario was the first jurisdiction in North America to phase out burning coal for electricity generation.

Also surprising, just 64% of participants were able to provide the correct answer to a multiple-choice question on electricity use. Specifically, households were asked: If you use a 1-kilowatt (KW) electric heater for two hours, how much electricity will it use? (Answer: 2 kilowatt-hours.) However, not all questions appeared to be difficult. For example, 85% of respondents correctly answered the question: In Canada, the price of electricity is determined at which jurisdictional level? (Answer: provincial.) Another interesting, and unexpected result, 72% of households correctly identified the time of day, in the winter, when electricity rates are on-peak and therefore most expensive for Toronto households. Overall, on the knowledge portion of the survey, participants correctly answered 66% of questions.

On an optimistic note, most households reported having positive environmental and energy attitudes and values. For example, 62% of respondents strongly agreed and 33% of respondents agreed that energy education should be included in every school’s curriculum. Further, 57% of respondents strongly agreed and 22% agreed that individuals are just as responsible as governments and businesses for protecting and maintaining the environment. Many of these same Toronto households also reported engaging in conservation and efficiency actions. These included using cold water wash or rinse settings, using energy efficient lighting, maintaining correct tire pressure, walking or biking short distances, and turning the heat down at night. Research suggests that widespread adoption of simple behaviours like these could have a significant impact on Canada’s ability to reduce its GHG emissions.

Also concerning, there is some evidence that lacking knowledge of energy-related issues can act as a barrier to participating in energy-related discussions and decision-making.

From a broad perspective, there is some concern that low levels of energy literacy may impede Canada’s ability to transition to a low carbon economy. Many believe that support for future energy technologies and renewables could be affected if people’s understanding of them, and related energy issues, is low. Also concerning, there is some evidence that lacking knowledge of energy-related issues can act as a barrier to participating in energy-related discussions and decision-making. So while there may be a gap between knowledge and action at the micro level, for example knowing how to save energy but not engaging in behaviours that do so, it is also critical to understand the potential gap between intention (and interest) to engage in energy-related conversations on the one hand but not pursuing them due to a lack of energy-related knowledge on the other hand. For example, lacking knowledge on sources of electricity generation might exclude some people from the critical debates surrounding nuclear power and its supporting infrastructure. Not understanding how electricity use is calculated, and therefore not understanding how to read an energy bill, may leave some individuals confused about current debates regarding rising electricity prices. And these are only a few examples. There are many more.

Ontario, and the rest of the country, is at a critical point in low carbon energy transitions. A point during which environmental citizenship on the part of all energy users could be beneficial. That is, ideally, progress will be realized through the participation and engagement of all stakeholders, including the general public, at both the micro and macro levels, so that decision-making is inclusive. And though it is largely agreed upon that it isn’t necessary for everyone to be an energy expert, meaningful and necessary conversations on relevant energy issues could benefit from a fundamental level of knowledge and understanding on the part of everyone.

Dr. Runa Das is an assistant professor and core faculty member in the Doctor of Social Sciences Program at Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC. Her work is motivated by real world issues such as climate change and sustainability. In particular, her interdisciplinary research explores the assessment and practice of the environmental and social dimensions of sustainability with a specific focus on energy-related issues. She examines the human dimensions and determinants of energy use, energy literacy, environmental and energy justice and pro-environmental behaviour change.  Learn more

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