Do Tomorrow's Consumers Know Enough About Energy?

By Gary Swan
Vice President, Development at the National Energy Foundation

What do high school seniors think about current issues such as climate change and energy independence? How much do they know about where our energy in the U.S. comes from and how we get it? Do they understand the difference between fossil and renewable fuels, and do they have any idea how much we use of each?

If you’re an energy professional, or just interested in energy issues, you may have wondered about questions like these. And you’re not alone. The National Energy Foundation (NEF), a 501 (c) (3) non-profit educational organization and a national leader in the promotion of “energy literacy,” decided it was high time to actually find some answers!

During the 2016-17 school year, NEF launched an unprecedented national initiative called the National Energy Literacy Survey. In partnership with Cicero Social Impact, a prominent market research firm, NEF surveyed 2,005 high school seniors across the country to measure their knowledge, attitudes and behaviors related to energy. I’d like to share some of the survey’s fascinating results.

When it comes to energy-related knowledge, as one might expect, our high school seniors have a long way to go. For example, consider these results:

We asked students whether the following statement was true or false: “Electric vehicles use electricity generated only from renewable energy.” With a 50% chance of just guessing the right answer, only 53% of students correctly answered “false.” Ouch!

Here’s another true or false question: “Nuclear reactors do not produce air pollution or carbon dioxide while operating.” Only 33% of respondents correctly answered “true,” meaning not only do they not know the correct answer, but there is a strong misconception at play.

We asked many more questions about the use of natural gas and coal, the use of wind and solar, some science of energy basics questions, and some questions about energy use and efficiency. Students certainly knew more about energy efficiency than other topics, but even then the results were not great. Overall, students scored an average of 48.8 out of 100, with a score of 63.2 on the efficiency portion of the test.

How about attitudes? We asked students how much they agreed or disagreed with a slate of 22 attitudinal statements, ranging from those focused on environmental concerns, such as climate change, to those focused on energy independence and the role that the government should play in promoting energy efficiency. From these questions, we have preliminarily created some distinct “personas” (think psychographic profiles such as the widely known “soccer mom”). With tentative names like “agents of change” and “big talkers,” these personas promise to provide insights into how attitudes about energy drive both knowledge and behavior (and vice versa).

Finally, we asked students about their energy usage behaviors. While the basic behavior of turning off lights when leaving a room was reported to be pretty common (81% always or almost always), all other wise energy usage behaviors we asked about were below 40%.

There is so much information available. For detailed results of the survey, including recommendations about how your organization can help make a difference in improving energy literacy, please visit our national survey web page.  You can also contact me at or 801-327-9504