Just half of Americans prioritize saving energy in their home. The good news: Inspiring them to ‘save the planet’ could change that

A new national survey finds good news for the environment: Nine out of 10 Americans believe the average person should be taking concrete steps to reduce his or her environmental impact. And two-thirds think that personal energy conservation habits can make a real difference in preventing climate change.

The only catch, according to the new survey conducted by Knoxville-based Shelton Group: The things Americans are prioritizing in their own lives don’t have the most environmental impact.

“People need to be inspired to take positive action,” said Suzanne Shelton, President and CEO of Shelton Group, a marketing firm specializing in energy and the environment. “And what will inspire Americans to save energy? Hearing that it will help protect the environment.

“Americans are feeling increasingly anxious about the climate and want to do something, so saving the planet is a much more powerful motivator than saving a few bucks a year on your utility bill,” Shelton added.

The national poll, Shelton’s 11th annual Energy Pulse survey, discovered that Americans care deeply about the environment, and want to take action to help. A full 90 percent say the average person should be taking concrete steps to reduce his or her environmental impact. And 67 percent think that personal energy conservation habits can make a real difference in preventing climate change.

But most Americans don’t recognize the importance of improving the efficiency of their homes.

Only 6 percent of Americans knew that the No. 1 man-made cause of climate change is the energy we use in our homes. The EPA reports that 30 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions is created by generating electricity.

The survey found that just 49 percent of Americans selected “reduce household energy use” as one of the top three things you should do to minimize your environmental impact.

But experts say that’s one of the best opportunities to help. The federal government notes that two-thirds of U.S. electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels. And most of that electricity is being used for heating and cooling.

“Most Americans don’t understand that finding ways to reduce their heating and air-conditioning use is one of the best ways to help the environment on a daily basis,” Shelton said.

The survey found 84 percent of Americans say they know only a little or nothing about what to do to improve their home’s energy efficiency. That knowledge gap is holding them back from making improvements.

For example, many Americans have old heating and air conditioning systems (HVACs) and an extra refrigerator or freezer – all of which use a significant amount of electricity. The survey found 44 percent of Americans have an HVAC unit that’s 15 years or older. And six of 10 Americans (59 percent) have two or more refrigerators or freezers.

“Clearly, all of us could be saving more energy than we are now,” Shelton said.

Based on the survey’s findings, Shelton and her team created new recommendations for utilities and marketers of energy-efficient products: Start focusing more on the environmental benefits of saving energy.

"When it comes to energy efficiency messaging, taking positive actions for the environment offers an inspirational angle that other benefits – like saving money – simply can’t match,” Shelton said. “It’s time to start talking about helping the environment.”

But there’s one caveat, Shelton said. It’s important to make people feel inspired – but not guilty.

"If you tell consumers that their old, inefficient HVAC systems are pouring tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, they may react by feeling blamed instead of making a smart upgrade," Shelton said. "Instead, we should be tapping into their innate desire to contribute to the common good.

"That means inspiring people to feel like all-stars, even heroes, when they take action to save energy. We should give them a rush of positive emotion, and make them proud for taking action,” Shelton said. “Just imagine what would happen if we took practical, unsexy stuff like insulation, old freezers and SEER ratings and connected them to feeling heroic – like a champion for our planet? That’s when good things will start happening.”

Want to learn more? A special report highlighting the findings is available free at http://sheltongrp.com/lp/energy-pulse-special-report-playing-the-planet-card/.