Energy is directly linked to our well-being, our prosperity and our way of life. For decades, the general populace was largely unaware of the workings of the energy industry.
However, in the mid-1970s, awareness of energy consumption grew, in part due to the oil crisis of the time. With this increase in awareness came opportunity. Energy issues were propelled to the forefront of public discourse, but an accurate understanding lagged behind.
The gap between a simple awareness of energy needs and true energy literacy was apparent. The National Energy Foundation was created with a mission to cultivate and promote an energy literate society by employing a powerful strategy – education.
Elissa Richards /// NEF
The idea of energy literacy seems vague at first consideration, but what makes someone energy literate can be specifically outlined. Literacy can be defined as "having or showing knowledge about a particular subject.” NEF defines an energy literate person as someone who:
- Knows how much energy they use, for what purpose, and how it is produced.
- Makes informed energy-related decisions based on an understanding of personal, economic, environmental, and societal impacts.
- Understands the current energy fuel mix and forecasts for the future.
- Comprehends the key functions of the energy delivery system.
- Uses energy safely and is a responsible citizen with respect to energy-related public safety issues.
- Knows how to credibly evaluate sources of information on energy.
This is a formal definition for a concept that applies to anyone and everyone. It is as important for kindergarteners to begin their energy literacy journey as it is for retirees to continue theirs. The way in which energy education concepts are communicated to first grade students differs from the methods used to inform their parents, but the outcome is consistent.
Those who take the time to learn and understand energy and their relationship with energy will make informed energy decisions.
Energy education requires a multi-faceted strategy that reaches students, their families and their communities. Over the course of 40 years, NEF has developed meaningful curriculum and programs that encourage students to think critically about energy.
Empowering students to be the energy educator at home provides astonishing results. The school-to-home approach is effective. Conversations that begin with “What did you do at school today?” prompt informed energy discussions and actions led by students.
Trends in education and the energy industry rapidly evolve with technology. The shifts occurring make the present the perfect time to encourage a future generation of active and informed energy users, and education is an excellent catalyst.
Now, more than ever before, students and their families have access to data and information that can help them make safe and enlightened energy decisions. Without education, the opportunity is often lost. Advanced metering, the smart grid, distributed generation, interconnected thermostats, advanced power strips and so many other exciting technologies have taken the mystery out of energy use, even for a 5th grade student.
Students today are the decision makers, policy makers and most importantly, rate-paying customers of tomorrow. An energy literate student has the ability to trace their energy back to the natural resources used to produce it and its impacts on the economy and environment.
An energy literate student fully understands how the electricity that turns on their lights reached their home. An energy literate student knows to call 811 before they dig and how to use appliances safely. And most importantly, an energy literate student has an energy literate family.
Energy education leads to students and families equipped with the knowledge of the vital role of energy in their lives and the ability to make informed decisions. Nelson Mandela said in a 2003 speech, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."
This is certainly true for energy education in a changing world.
Elissa Richards is president of the National Energy Foundation.