CEP: Editorial - Energy Literacy

November
2013

A poll conducted by the Univ. of Texas at Austin (www.utenergypoll.com/newsroom) in September found that the average American does not have a good understanding of energy issues. What’s saddening is that many don’t seem to care much about energy. Although 62% of the respondents claim energy issues are important to them, less than half say they are interested in energy issues, and only 28% find energy exciting.     “What we’re seeing is the real disconnect between energy and the American public,” says Sheril Kirshenbaum, UT Energy Poll Director. “In some instances, ideology may influence attitudes, but there’s unquestionably a lack of understanding across a broad swath of energy issues that affect each of us.”     A majority (58%) of the respondents think Saudi Arabia is the largest foreign supplier of oil to the U.S., while only 13% recognize Canada as having that distinction; Canada provides 28% of our foreign-supplied oil, Saudi Arabia just 16%. Even those who consider themselves knowledgeable about how energy is produced, delivered, and used (31%) may not be as knowledgeable as they think — only 46% of that group chose Canada.     A survey carried out by the Pew Research Center (www.pewresearch.org/key-data-points/energy-key-data-points) also found the public’s energy literacy to be lacking. Only about half are aware of the uptick in U.S. energy production over the past few years, and just a third of those people correctly attribute the increase to more oil, coal, and natural gas production.     Knowledge of hydraulic fracturing — a topic near and dear to many chemical engineers — is not very extensive, either. Only 40% of the UT Austin poll respondents claim to be familiar with this drilling technique; one-fifth have never even heard of it, and another one-fifth have heard of it but are not at all familiar with it. Those who are familiar with fracking are evenly split over its use — 38% support it, 38% oppose it. The Pew survey found a similar split over the increased use of fracking (44% in favor, 49% opposed), and that opposition has grown significantly — in March, supporters outnumbered opponents 48% to 38%.     Despite these misunderstandings, people seem willing to take steps to save energy. Almost half of the UT Austin respondents think that within the next five years they will be using smart-meter technology to better manage their household’s demand for electricity. A third think they will own a hybrid vehicle, 28% anticipate installing solar panels on their homes, and about one-fifth envision owning either a natural-gas-fueled (22%) or fully electric (21%) vehicle. And, 43% are willing to pay much higher prices in order to protect the environment.     The gap between chemical engineers’ knowledge about energy and the general public’s, and sometimes that of policy- and decision-makers, was emphasized by Bill Banholzer and Mark Jones in a recent AIChE Journal Perspective article (summarized in CEP, Aug. 2013, p. 15). They point out that chemical engineers are uniquely trained to understand mass and energy balances, to understand and apply scaling laws, to determine and understand rate-limiting steps, and to perform economic analyses — all of which can aid society in prioritizing resources to solve global challenges such as energy.     On a smaller scale, you can help lower your own facility’s energy bill by making sure your chillers are operating efficiently. The article on pp. 18–23, “Optimize Energy Use in Industrial Cooling Systems,” offers guidance on how to do that.

 

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