Initial Publication Date: March 13, 2013
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Teaching about energy choices is supported by 6 key concepts:

7.1 Economic security is impacted by energy choices. Individuals and society continually make energy choices that have economic consequences. These consequences come in the form of monetary cost in general and in the form of price fluctuation and instability specifically.

There are direct connections between energy use and quality of life

Energy has both positive and negative impacts on societies. Access to abundant, affordable, secure, safe, and clean energy is beneficial for humans. But energy extraction, transportation, and use can have negative consequences to the health, environment, and economics of a society. Moreover, relying on imported energy can create vulnerabilities to a nation's security. The impacts of energy decisions are not equal for all people. Lower income or marginalized societies are more likely to suffer negative consequences of energy decisions because they have a reduced capacity for adaptation and they may lack negotiating power compared to higher income societies. Therefore, vulnerable populations can benefit greatly from improvements in energy accessibility, safety, or affordability.

This topic also raises the fundamental problem that the world is strongly dependent on a finite supply of fossil fuels. As demand increases and supply becomes scarce, the problem becomes more acute, with potentially severe economic and social consequences. A large-scale transition away from fossil energy poses a great challenge for society.

Energy is a global, multicultural topic

Students can expand their thinking beyond their own personal experiences with energy and consider ways in which energy can impact the economics, security, environment, and health of other societies. Energy supplies are traded globally and the effects of energy use have worldwide consequences, so students can appreciate the expansive reach of energy issues. Students, particularly younger students, may not have considered how their own experiences with energy are vastly different from students their own age in different countries. Students will need to be exposed to ideas, values, and case studies from other cultures in order to appreciate how energy choices differ around the world. This broad-view approach is particularly helpful when considering negotiations and cooperation between nations as we tackle climate change and sustainable energy challenges.

Similar to Energy Principle 6, these ideas may result in students confronting the impacts of American energy choices on the rest of the world. This is particularly poignant as economically developing nations strive to achieve a higher quality of life, which is resulting in sharply increasing consumption of energy these nations. Educators can aim to broaden students' worldviews while also preventing feelings of guilt or helplessness.

Bringing these ideas into your classroom

A key goal within this topic is for students to gain a sense of how energy use affects the quality of life for other societies. Activities can be structured to build on the personal approach used in Energy Principle 6 and extend this to gain perspective for how energy choices influence life both at home and around the world. Compared to many children across the globe, American students enjoy a high standard of living and use more energy per capita than most. Many Americans are also removed from the immediate effects of energy extraction, transportation, and waste disposal. Case studies, videos, and personal accounts from those whose lives are challenged by energy use can be engaging ways for students to connect with a perspective from another culture.

Middle school students can examine 'a day in the life' scenarios for children their own age in different cultures. How much energy do children use in Canada, Kenya, and Japan? What differences in culture and lifestyle contribute to different energy use patterns? How do climate, transportation, food, and standard of living affect energy consumption? And how does the availability of energy affect the quality of life?

Companion video by the Department of Energy View a non-YouTube version of this video
High school students are more likely to have traveled to other cultures or met people from around the world, so it will be somewhat easier for them to appreciate how energy might affect quality of life. Exchange students can offer insights to energy use in their home countries. High school students can also take field trips to local energy installations to visit a power plant, hydroelectric dam, or a mine. Observing the effects of energy development firsthand can help students appreciate how energy development has direct effects on the landscape.

College students can consider energy in context to geology, geography, population dynamics, economics, societal needs, and human health. The topic of energy and quality of life can be explored in many types of courses. College students can work with data sets about energy resources, use, and prices around the globe. A case study approach will allow students to consider many facets of energy in a particular culture.

Teaching materials from the CLEAN collection

Middle 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.
  • Samoa Under Threat examines the effects of global warming on the Pacific island of Samoa with testimonials from an expert in western science knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge.
  • Your Family's Carbon Footprint is an activity for students to investigate how much greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide and methane) their family releases into the atmosphere each year and relate it to climate change.
  • Energy Choices and Climate Change allows students to make decisions about the types and amount of energy used, and then see what effect their decisions have on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gases emissions while keeping costs reasonable.

High school

  • Solar Water Heater - Student teams design and build solar water heating devices that mimic those used in residences to capture energy in the form of solar radiation and convert it to thermal energy.
  • Who Will Take the Heat? This role playing activity simulates negotiations between the United States and China about climate change policies. Students use given background material or can do their own additional research to present their assigned stakeholder's position in a simulated negotiation.
  • Responding to Climate Change focuses on mitigation of climate change. This activity includes information on current and predicted CO2 emission scenarios across the globe, alternative energy sources, and how people are currently responding to climate change.
  • Energy Lab challenges students to meet the world's projected energy demand over the next century while keeping atmospheric CO2 under a target of 550ppm.


  • Global Energy Flows steps students through an analysis of global energy sources and sinks (uses). Discussions of scale; historical, socio-environmental, and geographic variation in this data; and implications for future energy use are included.
  • World Climate: A Computer Simulation Role-Playing Exercise provides scenarios for exploring the principles of climate dynamics from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Connections among climate issues, public stakeholders, and governance are investigated through creative simulations designed to support learners' understanding of international climate change negotiations.
  • Energy and the Poor - Black Carbon in Low Income Nations allows students to explore impacts using wood, dung, and charcoal for fuel, all of which generate black carbon.
  • Stabilization Wedges Game is a team-based activity that teaches students about the scale of the greenhouse gas problem and the technologies that already exist which can dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Students select carbon-cutting strategies to construct a carbon mitigation profile, filling in the wedges of a climate stabilization triangle.
  • Energy culture as a determinant of a country's position in the climate talks is an activity where students compare countries and nation-states with high- and low-energy consumption rates within a specific region of the world.

Find activities and visuals for teaching this topic

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International Energy Outlook, from the US Energy Information Administration. This link automatically updates to the most recent release of this annual report.

Power Plant Data Highlights from the EPA gives up-to-date emissions data from U.S. power plants, including ozone, SO2, NOx, Hg, and CO2. Got a coal plant in your state? You can look up exactly what comes out of the stacks.

Fossil Fuels and Health - offers a series of articles from the Harvard School of Public Health. Topics include air pollution, oil and gas production, life-cycle costs of coal, and the health benefits of renewable energy.

Could the Health Benefits of Renewable Energy Cover Your Electric Bill? Renewable energy can help curb greenhouse gas emissions and can save money by improving public health.

The Health Impacts of Energy Choices provides an overview of key health considerations in energy systems and energy policy. Addresses public health, occupational health, and climate change and health. Contains a table that summarizes the health impacts of different energy sources.