What Do Americans Know About Energy?

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Americans think they understand energy issues, but many don’t, according to researchers at RTI International.  

That is bad news for policy makers who want to change people’s energy consumption habits. People need to understand energy usage before they can change their consumption habits, according to Brian Southwell, a senior research scientist at RTI. Southwell’s coauthors include Joseph Murphy and Patricia LeBaron, both survey methodologists at RTI, and Jan Dewaters, an engineering instructor at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.

Together, they have taken the first step in an effort to understand what Americans know about energy issues, information that has been lacking in the U.S. In a web-based survey of 816 people, they measured three concepts: perceived understanding of energy, demonstrated energy knowledge and the ability to interpret an energy bill. Their findings were reported in Americans’ Perceived and Actual Understanding of Energy, published by RTI Press.

Although 85 percent of respondents gave the correct answer to the question, “The original source of energy for almost all living things is (the sun),” only 38 percent answered this question correctly: “Which of the following sources provides the most electricity in the United States?” (coal). Most of the respondents answered less than 60 percent of the knowledge items correctly.

“We found that what people think they know about energy and what they actually know do not match,” Southwell said. Educational attainment, household income and sex were significant predictors of how well people thought they would do on a test of their energy knowledge. More education and higher income correlated with a belief that an individual could understand energy issues, as did being male.

Less than a third of respondents were able to answer three questions about their energy bill correctly.

“Our results show the need for improved energy literacy in the U.S., and our study also provides examples of ways to measure energy understanding,” Southwell said. 

The good news is that most respondents agreed that people like them can understand energy.


  • Study examined perceived and demonstrated understanding of energy and ability to interpret an energy bill
  • Education, income and sex were strong predictors of how well people thought they would do on a test of their energy knowledge
  • The study was published by RTI Press