Initial Publication Date: March 13, 2013
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Teaching about energy decisions is supported by 7 key concepts:

5.1 Decisions concerning the use of energy resources are made at many levels. Humans make individual, community, national, and international energy decisions. Each of these levels of decision-making has some common and some unique aspects. Decisions made beyond the individual level often involve a formally established process of decision-making.

Energy decisions are made on every level, from personal to international

  • Individuals make energy decisions every day. These decisions may be driven by need, cost, convenience, or social norms.
  • Societies make energy decisions following formalized procedures, but these decisions are influenced by many different, and sometimes competing factors. Economics plays an important role in shaping energy policy. Market forces, taxes, regulations, and subsidies can affect the prices of different forms of energy. Environmental and societal costs are part of decision-making as well, as each form of energy has different impacts on the land, air, water, ecosystems, and people.
  • The political process surrounds all of these factors, which adds influences relating to the balance of power, ideology, corporate influence, and governmental structure.

In a nutshell, the decisions surrounding energy use and energy policy are part of a complex, multifaceted process.

Our society is facing many energy challenges

Will we have enough energy to fuel our society and our economy? Can we continue to use energy without causing irreparable harm to Earth's climate system? How much effort and resources are we willing to invest in alternative energy sources? Can sufficient energy be distributed fairly, safely, and economically to all parts of the globe? The answers to these questions are dependent on the decisions we make about energy.

These ideas are of critical importance for students, and in fact, for all people. Energy decisions can have profound impacts on our lives, the economy, national security, and the environment. Every day, individuals make decisions about energy in the actions we take, the products we purchase, and the policies we support. Because of this, every person plays a role in the complex system of energy decisions.

Helping students understand these ideas

Companion video by the Department of Energy

View a non-YouTube version of this video

Teachers may be familiar with student utterances of, "Why can't we just switch to renewable energy?" or, "I think we should close all the nuclear power plants." For students to engage in informed decisions, they need to be aware of the realities of balancing energy demand, economics, and the advantages and disadvantages of various energy sources. Teaching about energy decisions offers opportunities to infuse science principles with social, economic, and political factors.

These issues can be personal for some students. Policy viewpoints can be challenging to teach due to communications roadblocks such as the worldview backfire effect (learn more in this summary from the CLEAN Climate Communications workshop). It is important for educators to not be political advocates but to focus on building knowledge around the science, engineering, economics, and policy of energy decisions.

Bringing these ideas into your classroom

Energy policy spans engineering, economics, environmental science, political science, and social science. Moreover, psychology, communications, and ethics also play a role in shaping energy decisions. Thus, this topic can be taught within nearly any discipline. That said, students would benefit from an understanding of the science behind the energy issues before they grapple with the policy aspects. An activity about energy policy could serve as an effective capstone project for a unit about energy science.

Examples of possible energy policy activities in different disciplines:

  • Political science or Social studies - How is energy used across the world? How does energy use vary in different cultures? How are energy decisions made?
  • Math or economics - Calculate the costs of different types of energy. What factors are included in the price of energy? Are environmental impacts included in the price of energy? How does the price of energy influence the consumption of energy?
  • Psychology - What factors influence how much energy a person uses? What are some ways to motivate change in energy use? Are there psychological factors that influence citizens' outlooks on different energy sources?

Energy decisions are at the root of solutions to many environmental challenges, particularly climate change. Topics such as the increasing demand for energy, the need for clean and sustainable energy sources, or how societies use energy are all possible methods to empower students to think about ways to solve some of our current challenges.

As with Energy Principle 4, a quantitative approach allows students to go beyond wishful thinking about energy. A well-rounded learning experience will allow students to back up their ideas with scientific or economic data that demonstrate the feasibility of different decisions or policies.

Role-playing and case studies are fitting pedagogic tactics for teaching these concepts. These approaches help break down the wide array of viewpoints and variables into manageable pieces.

Teaching materials from the CLEAN collection

Middle school

  • Car of the Future puts students into research teams to develop a proposal to decrease the carbon footprint of their city's public transportation system. Students prepare a report that explains why their transportation plan is the best for their community.
  • Dreaming in Green - Young Voices on Climate Change highlights four middle-school girls and their efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of their school.
  • Power for Low Income Countries asks students to design economically-viable engineering solutions to address the energy needs of three off-the-grid towns in Africa.
  • Where do you put a wind farm? has students use environmental, community, and planning data to decide where to put a new wind farm.

High school


  • Simulation of International Negotiations to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions allows students to learn about the interests of different countries and the range of policy responses to mitigate future climate change.
  • Greenhouse Emissions Reduction Role-Play Exercise - Students take the roles of various important players in the climate change policy negotiation including politicians, scientists, environmentalists, and industry representatives. Working in these roles, students must take a position, debate with others, and then vote on legislation designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
  • Adapting to a Changing World - This activity explores national attitudes about climate change, illustrates the difference between climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, and provides structured opportunities to identify effective adaptation efforts in the US and elsewhere.
  • Evaluating the Effects of Local Energy Resource Development is a semester-long jigsaw project in which students work in teams to explore the effects of energy resource development on local water resources, economics, and society.

Find activities and visuals for teaching this topic

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The BP energy charting tool allows students to investigate data, create charts, and download reports by specifying the parameters of their interest, such as geographical regions, fuel types, consumption, production, and more.

The International Energy Agency has several data analysis and visual resources, including charts and graphs of energy statistics for countries around the globe. There is also access to many different kinds of energy reports. These resources can be implemented for data analysis activities for students and could lead to valuable discussions.

The Levelized Cost of Energy and Levelized Cost of Storage analysis by Lazard reports that as the cost of renewable energy continues to decline, these technologies continue to maintain a competitive edge with the existing conventional generation technologies. These reports and graphics can be used in the classroom for discussion and activities on energy decisions. They are updated yearly.