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March 7, 2012

Q&A: Margot Gerritsen on the critical need for energy literacy in the US

Although the United States is one of the world's biggest energy consumers, the average American has little knowledge about basic energy issues, says Margot Gerritsen.

By Mark Shwartz

Margot Gerritsen, associate professor of energy resources engineering. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

How much do Americans really know about the electricity that runs their appliances, or the gasoline that powers their cars?

Not enough, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, which asked experts, including Margot Gerritsen, an associate professor of energy resources engineering, to help change that.

Last year, the DOE launched an Energy Literacy Initiative to address what many experts say is a critical need to improve Americans' fundamental understanding of energy – from the basic units of measurement (watts, British thermal units, etc.) to energy production and distribution, to the economic and environmental factors that affect decisions about energy use.

As part of the initiative, the DOE invited educators from across the country to develop a set of essential principles for energy literacy. Among those asked to participate was Gerritsen, a tireless promoter of energy literacy through classroom lectures, alumni talks and her blog, Smart Energy Show.

Although not directly involved in drafting the DOE report, Gerritsen is a strong supporter of the Energy Literacy Initiative and has proposed other less traditional outreach efforts, like an energy infomercial campaign on YouTube.

Stanford's Precourt Institute for Energy recently sat down with Gerritsen to discuss energy literacy and the essential concepts that an energy-literate citizen needs to know.

And yes, there will be a short quiz at the end. 

Why is energy literacy important?

Everything revolves around energy. The products we buy, the food we eat, the drinking water we pump from the ground, our transportation system, the Internet – it's all driven by energy, yet we take it for granted. People need to have a basic understanding of energy to make informed decisions, not only about their own consumption but also about key policy issues.

When I give a talk, one of the first things I ask the audience is, "Where does energy come from?" They really have no idea.

What other kinds of questions do you ask?

Simple things, like, "Which countries supply the most oil to the United States?" People are very surprised when they find out that Canada is our biggest supplier. Another question I ask is, "Do you think that the U.S. is still a major oil producer?" We're number three in the world, but people aren't aware of that.  

Many people continue to have an outdated view of OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries]. They think that we're still living in the 1980s and that OPEC still controls the world oil market. They assume that oil prices are up because OPEC has been curtailing production, but today it's the global market that determines price. 

What do your audiences say about renewable energy, like wind and solar?

A lot of people assume that renewable energy prices have come down because of heavy government subsidies, and that renewables are subsidized a lot more than oil and gas, which is not true. There are all sorts of subsidies that allow the oil and gas industry to flourish.

Nowadays when I give a talk, people bring up Solyndra, the failed Bay Area solar energy company, as an example of subsidies gone wrong and government waste. But they've already forgotten about the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. That caused a lot more damage and was a lot more expensive than the $500 million federal loan Solyndra defaulted on. So there's a very forgiving attitude toward fossil fuels, especially in places like Louisiana that heavily depend on the oil industry, and a very unforgiving attitude toward renewable energy failures.

What really surprises me after all these years is the bird controversy with wind turbines. Whenever I give a talk and say that wind is a clean-energy solution, people say, yes, but wind turbines kill birds. Then I put it in perspective: Hundreds of millions of birds are killed every year by traffic, buildings, lead poisoning, power lines...

And cats.

Cats kill thousands of times more birds annually than turbines, yet many people continue to aggressively criticize wind energy. It's important to understand that every energy source comes with negatives, and that no technology is perfect.

I've also found that many people are unaware of the correlation between fossil fuels and human health. For example, respiratory disease in California's Central Valley is directly linked to air pollution from vehicle exhaust. When I ask people where the pollution comes from, they're not sure. Sometimes they say that it drifts in from China.

What are some of the fundamental things you would like people to know about energy?

I always emphasize efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. Fossil fuels are here, we're completely dependent on them and they will be around for years to come. In the short term, energy efficiency is the best way to reduce oil, gas and coal consumption and lower greenhouse gas emissions. It's the lowest hanging fruit.

Another key point is that renewable energy is no longer a choice. It is a must. We cannot do without it. The demand for energy will grow because of population and economic growth. We will not be able to supply the world without solar, wind and other renewables. Still, some people think that we have the luxury to say yes or no to renewables.

People on the other side think we have the luxury to say yes or no to shale gas. We don't. We have to exploit every single option. That's an extremely important thing for people to understand: There are very few choices. We must do energy efficiency, we must go to renewables, because our energy demands are constantly increasing.

It's also important to recognize that there is no such thing as a purely local solution. When I ask people, "Do you think it's possible to become energy independent?" they often say yes. But there's no such thing as true "energy independence." Whatever we do impacts someone else. For example, if there is a major push in the U.S. to grow crops for biofuels, that will have an immediate impact on food aid to Africa.

Another example is the Canadian tar sands. I've heard many people say that the U.S. could stop the tar sands development by refusing to buy the oil from Alberta. But we're in a global market. Canada can sell tar sands oil to China or any other country no matter what we do. In fact, there is active talk about building a pipeline from Alberta to the West Coast of Canada so that the tar sands oil can be exported to Asia. These things are no longer possible to do in isolation.

What kind of feedback do you get when you bring up energy and climate change?

I get various answers. Some people think we're causing global warming, and that it's going to be a huge problem. Others say we're probably causing it, but things are probably going to be OK, so we may not need to do anything about it. And there is a segment of the population that's skeptical about global climate change.

The problem is that climate and energy have become highly politicized in the last decade. There are two extremes right now. You're either pro-oil or against oil. If we could get more people in the middle we would be so much better off.

What would you like to see the DOE do to improve energy literacy?

There is certainly value in traditional educational efforts like the Energy Literacy Initiative. I would also like to see the DOE launch a nationwide infomercial campaign – 10 or 12 very short, savvy, sexy YouTube videos about the crucial role energy plays in our economy and our quality of life. A large fraction of the population is likely to respond to succinct, slogan-like messages on topics like energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They're already getting inundated with opposing messages from various special interest groups.

I've spoken with people at the DOE who said that President Obama and others in the White House had considered hiring a Hollywood advertising firm to set up a campaign to address global climate change, energy, water and food. I thought it was a terrific idea, but it never happened as far as I know. If you want to improve energy literacy so that the general public can make more informed decisions when voting or interacting with congressional representatives, an infomercial campaign is a good approach, along with educational outreach.

What is your outlook for the future?

I'm actually very optimistic, because we won't have a choice. We're going to have to do all the things I mentioned – improve efficiency, develop solar, wind, natural gas and other resources. Otherwise, there will be an energy shortage and our economy won't be able to grow. It won't be easy. There will be energy shocks along the way, but we'll get there. It will come.

Here's the quiz: Test your Energy IQ

About what percentage of U.S. energy comes from fossil fuels?

(a) 35 percent

(b) 55 percent

(c) 85 percent

Approximately what percentage of U.S. oil comes from Canada?

(a) 5 percent

(b) 10 percent

(c) 25 percent

How many offshore wind farms are operating in the United States?

(a) 100

(b) 50

(c) 0

What state generates the most electricity from wind?

(a) California

(b) Kansas

(c) Texas

What percentage of California's total natural gas consumption is used to heat, treat and pump water?  

(a) 5 percent

(b) 15 percent

(c) 30 percent

If you answered (c) to all of the questions above, give yourself an A.

Mark Shwartz is a communications/energy writer at the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.



Margot Gerritsen, Energy Resources Engineering: (650) 725-3542,

Mark Shwartz, Precourt Institute for Energy: (650) 723-9296,

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