Initial Publication Date: March 13, 2013
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Teaching about energy use is supported by 8 key concepts:

6.1 Conservation of energy has two very different meanings. There is the physical law of conservation of energy. This law says that the total amount of energy in the universe is constant. Conserving energy is also commonly used to mean the decreased use of societal energy resources. When speaking of people conserving energy, this second meaning is always intended.

Energy use is at the heart of many environmental issues

Every society needs energy. But energy use is tied to many environmental and societal concerns, such as greenhouse gas emissions, mining, pipelines, fracking, and the "embedded energy" in energy infrastructure. No form of energy is free of impacts, but some forms are certainly better than others. Using less energy and using energy efficiently are straightforward ways to reduce the burden on the environment.

The amount of energy we use is affected by several factors.

  • Energy use can be reduced by limiting wasteful practices by eliminating unnecessary uses of energy, or by opting to use the most efficient form of energy available.
  • Technological or social innovation can reduce energy consumption.
  • Design of products, technology, or infrastructure can result in lower energy consumption.
  • Knowledge of the amount of energy used for different processes can inform decisions about energy use.

These concepts help us understand our consumption of energy, both on an individual level and on a societal scale. Building students' knowledge of energy consumption can prompt behavioral choices and motivate students to take personal action to reduce energy use. Activities that teach this principle are often designed to have a strong take-home message that connects classroom learning to one's daily life and decisions.

Misconceptions about energy use are commonplace

A persistent misconception implies that reducing energy use equates to a lower standard of living. In fact, the opposite is true in many cases. A modern, efficient car can drive farther on the same amount of fuel compared to an older car. Living nearer to school, work, and community provides many conveniences while reducing the energy needed for transportation. Eating a vegetarian-based diet has many benefits for human health. Students participating in a 3-week energy conservation project (The Lifestyle Project) reported increased satisfaction and quality of life as a result of making reductions in their energy use (Kirk and Thomas, 2001). Educators will have to address the misconception that energy consumption (or even energy waste) is equated with socioeconomic success. That said, in low to middle income nations, access to energy is directly linked to the standard of living. As with many misconceptions, there is an element of truth to this idea.

There are also many folkloric misconceptions about energy use that can be addressed when teaching about energy consumption.

Companion video by the Department of Energy View a non-YouTube version of this video
Battling preconceptions is a constant challenge for educators. There are key steps to ease the cognitive transition to replace one idea with another. The Myth Debunking Handbook provides clear guidance for educators. Examples of myth debunking techniques for common student preconceptions about climate topics were prepared by educators at a CLEAN workshop about climate communication.

Quantitative skills can strengthen understanding of energy use

Students may place a disproportionate amount of emphasis on relatively small fractions of energy use. For example, while it is a good practice to unplug cell phone chargers when not in use, it saves 16 times more energy to shorten your hot shower by one minute (see calculations below). Similarly, students may get the impression that switching to energy-efficient light bulbs can "solve" the energy problem. By keeping scale in mind, students can appreciate the level of effort that is needed to significantly slow the growth in energy demand.

Avoid Value Judgements

The use, or overuse, of energy may evoke feelings of guilt from some students. Americans use more energy per capita than most other societies. The consequences of our energy use affect vulnerable populations such as those living near coal mines or in areas that will be potentially inundated by sea-level rise associated with carbon emissions. It is a delicate balance for educators to instill a sense of responsibility and empowerment in students' energy choices while avoiding feelings of guilt or helplessness.

Similarly, issues of economic status may arise while teaching this issue. However, this can cut both ways. For example, a wealthy family may consume a lot of energy by driving large automobiles. Conversely, a wealthy family may also have the means to purchase an efficient car with modern energy-saving technologies. Educators can be aware of unintentionally creating a divide between students from different economic situations. Thankfully, saving energy saves money and can be done with little to no financial investment. Carpooling, turning down the heat, and using less hot water save both money and energy. It is easy to find common ground on these issues.

Bringing these ideas into your classroom

Energy use is an experiential topic and there are many ways to teach it. A natural starting point is for students to consider their personal energy use. The CLEAN collection hosts many activities, assignments, and project ideas about energy consumption and conservation.

Middle school students can use devices such as the kill-a-watt to measure the electricity use from various appliances around their homes, such as with the activity Plugged into CO2.

High school students can take on a more comprehensive approach to quantifying energy use. In addition to measuring electricity use, students can examine their utility bills to consider heating, cooling, and hot water use. Students can also calculate energy used by transportation by tracking mileage and fuel economy in their family cars using EPA fuel economy data. Lastly, students can do simple calculations to scale up measurements they have made. For example, they can calculate the energy savings if the entire class, school, or community adopted simple energy-saving measures.

College students can take a quantitative approach to delve into some of the intricacies of energy. Beyond calculating their own energy use, they can consider the sources of that energy and the resulting carbon emissions by using the EPA eGRID database. College students can also compare energy use between different societies and different times in history. This allows for a broader perspective on energy use and energy needs. Students can also look ahead and consider how best to meet the energy demands of our growing population.

Teaching materials from the CLEAN collection

Middle school

  • Zero Energy Housing - Students investigate passive solar building design with a focus on heating. Insulation, window placement, thermal mass, surface colors, and site orientation are addressed in the background materials and design preparation. Students test their projects for thermal gains and losses during a simulated day and night then compare designs with other teams for suggestions for improvements.
  • Clarkson Energy Choices Board Game introduces the concepts of energy use in our lives and the real impact that personal choices can have on our energy consumption, energy bills, and fuel supply.
  • The Solar House video segment shares how an entire home can be constructed using green energy sources (solar and geothermal energy). The video is narrated by a young boy whose father is the chief engineer on the project.
  • The Big Energy Gamble is an activity for students to conduct an energy audit to determine how much carbon dioxide their family is releasing into the atmosphere and then make recommendations for minimizing their family's carbon footprint.
  • Carbon Footprint Calculator - This EPA carbon footprint calculator is set up for easy-to-use inputs for three sectors: home energy use, local transportation, and home waste generation.

High school

  • How Much Energy is on my Plate? leads students through a sequence of learning steps that highlight the embedded energy that is necessary to produce various types of food.
  • Where does your energy come from? Analyzing your energy bill and From Grid to Home are two activities that allow students to trace their energy consumption and energy sources through the use of their family's utility bills.
  • US Energy Production and Consumption - Students explore energy production and consumption by contrasting regional energy production in five different US regions.
  • Energy Walkabout puts teams of students in small groups to evaluate energy use in their school and make recommendations for improved efficiency. Students create and use an energy audit tool to collect data and present recommendations to their class.
  • The Big Energy Gamble uses a household energy audit to help students learn about units of power and energy and determine the cost of running various household appliances. The outcome of the lesson involves calculating the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for different types of energy and determining ways of reducing carbon dioxide output.


  • The Lifestyle Project begins with a measurement of baseline consumptive behavior followed by three weeks of working to reduce the use of water, energy, high-impact foods, and other materials. The assignment uses an Excel spreadsheet that calculates direct energy and water use as well as indirect CO2 and water use associated with food consumption. While completing the project, students are often surprised to learn how large their energy use is. They also learn that they can easily reduce their personal impact on the environment. This activity can be modified for younger audiences.
  • Electricity data browser allows students to create or view graphs, reports, and tables of electricity use and costs. From the US Energy Information Administration.
  • Gapminder: Unveiling the beauty of statistics for a fact based world view. In this interactive simulation, students can explore global CO2 emissions displayed by different continents/countries and plot based on the GDP. A map view is also accessible.
  • Power Metering Project focuses on applying analytic tools such as pie charts and bar graphs to gain a better understanding of practical energy use issues. It also provides experience with how different types of data collected affect the outcome of statistical visualization tools. Designed for an AP math class; applicable to college students as well.

Find activities and visuals for teaching this topic

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Energy - Our World in Data is a series of graphics displaying energy production and consumption around the world. The graphics are interactive, re-usable, and underlying data is downloadable. Helpful descriptions guide the reader through the information. The page is updated every few years. An excellent resource for teachers.

Data and Statistics from the International Energy Agency is an interactive tool that lends itself to exploring various facets of energy use all around the world or in specific locations or regions.

Global Energy Statistical Yearbook is an interactive, engaging display of worldwide data for energy production, consumption, sources, and CO2 emissions over time. This source is updated annually.

eGRID This EPA database is a comprehensive source of data on the environmental characteristics of almost all electric power generated in the United States. These environmental characteristics include air emissions for nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide; emissions rates; net generation; resource mix; and many other attributes.

Michael Bluejay's Guide to Saving Electricity - This web site offers clearly-worded explanations about how electricity use works, how to measure electricity use and way to save energy. The site is a little out of date but still useful.

Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air - by David MacKay. This book offers an easily-read guide to how energy is used in our society and what it would take to convert to purely sustainable forms of energy. The book uses a quantitative approach, yet is easy to follow and understand.

Kirk, K.B., and Thomas, J.J., The Lifestyle Project, Journal of Geoscience Education, v.51 no. 5, Nov. 2003, p. 496-499