Understanding Energy Usage Patterns with Data

As the latest developments remind us every day, the cost of our energy usage, both in our pockets and on the environment, is mounting. How can we effectively address these issues that seem so large? Although it may be rather difficult for a single person to help make sweeping change in the global energy scene, it is entirely possible to promote awareness at the local or community level. But what is it exactly that we need to be “aware” about? A lot of us already know that climate change is bad or that you should turn off your lights when you leave the building. To specifically understand the energy usage patterns of my school, I sent out an energy usage survey to all the students. In this presentation, I will visualize and explore the data I collected to better understand the energy usage situation and make a more informed “call-to-action” for raising awareness.

The Survey

The following survey was sent out to all of the students at Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School in Bloomfield Hills, MI in order to better understand the energy usage situation among high schoolers. It addressed three major types of energy usage, personal electronics, transportation, and heating and cooling. There were 158 responses, about 20% of the student body. Feel free to fill it out yourself.

The People

To address an issue at the local level, it is necessary to understand who “your audience” is and what their attitudes are to your proposals, since they will be the main drivers of the change you want to make. Let’s take a look at the people who decided to answer the survey:

From the data, you can see that grade distribution of respondents was fairly even, with most being underclassmen. Responses were not significantly skewed towards one grade level or another. Another interesting trend is that most respondents described themselves as “environmentally conscious”, with 8% saying that term described them “strongly”. Of those who did not describe themselves as “environmentally conscious”, most described themselves as neutral, with only 6% of total respondents disagreeing with the statement. Given that our goal is to raise awareness about energy usage, it is definitely a plus to see that most people at least describe themselves as being environmentally aware.

NOTE: Cranbrook Kingswood is a boarding school with students from around the United States and the world. Although they may be similar, the responses here should be seen as representing Cranbrook students rather than Michigan students in general.


Electronic devices (phones, laptops, tablets, etc.) have become an integral part of young peoples’ lives, not just for social media, but also for shopping, education, and more. Of course, all of these devices translates into energy usage. Let’s look at how much people use their devices:

The survey shows that most students spend between 3 to 5 or 5 to 7 hours on their electronic devices, which is expected given the need for electronics in things such as schoolwork. An appliance energy usage calculator1from the United States Department of Energy estimates that a 25 watt laptop used about 5 hours a day, every day, will amount to about 45.6 kWh/year, or about $5.48 a year in costs. The numbers will vary based on your laptops wattage, but in general, personal electronics do not contribute significantly to your electric bill. However, the EPA estimates2 that for every kWh of energy produced, about 0.703 kg of CO2 is released into the air. This would mean about 32 kg, or 70.5 lbs, of CO2 a year for using your laptop. The actual use of electronics itself, however, is not the only thing using up energy. Leaving charging chords plugged in uses energy regardless of whether a device is being charged or not. This wasted energy is referred to as “vampire load”, and can cost a family an average of $2003. Plugged in TVs, kitchen appliances, and phones all contribute to this load, and as chart on the right shows, most of us are guilty of creating “vampire loads”.


 Electricity usage is not the only way we use energy in our lives. Transportation is an especially necessary part of a student’s life because it is how they get to and from school and their activities. Transportation modes vary from region to region, but in Southeastern Michigan, people tend to drive in their own cars, hence, public transportation use is uncommon. Cars of course, have a significant impact on the environment. Let’s take a look at how students responded to questions about their transportation habits.

Right off the bat we see that most students of driving age own a car. Of course, depending on your miles per gallon (mpg), your environmental impact will differ. Those who have a vehicle with a higher miles per gallon will release less emissions over the same distance as someone who has a vehicle with lower miles per gallon. When we look at the miles per gallon of the vehicles of students who owned one, we see that almost half have an mpg between 25 and 45 mpg, which is very good. What is concerning, however, is that 30% of student car owners do not know what their mpg is. The US Department of Energy estimatesthat 51% of a typical American household’s CO2 emissions come from their vehicle, so considering mpg is an important step in reducing your environmental impact. Given what we see in our data, it’s clear that there must be more awareness in this category.

Cars make up about 51% of a typical American family’s CO2 emissions (Image courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists)

Paying attention to mpg is not the only thing you can do to minimize your impact with regard to vehicles. Carpooling is a good way to reduce the number of vehicles that are out on the road and save on gas. But how many students take advantage of this?

The data shows us that more people rarely or never carpool than often or always, and that a significant number carpool occaisionally. Given that many students come from many different cities, it can be difficult to actually find someone to carpool with. However, given that there is a very large group of people that sometimes carpool, carpooling must be an option that is available for most. Awareness about the savings and environmental benefits of carpooling can hopefully encourage people to carpool more often.

Heating and Cooling

The US Department of Energy estimates5 that about 48% of the average US family’s energy usage goes towards heating and cooling. Heating is especially important in places like Michigan, where winter weather can sometimes start in October and end in March. Cooling is not as much a necessity as heating is for most, but is still widely used. How did Cranbrook students respond to questions about their heating and cooling usage? (Note: because heating is typically a necessity rather than a convenience when it is used, the forms of answers differ from that of the cooling question.)

The data shows that most respondents to the survey had their heaters on for more than 5 hours a day during the winter months. In my opinion, this is not something we should aim to reduce. After all, using energy to keep warm is certainly not a recent innovation. In fact, there are plenty of low-income families in the United States who would be happy to be able to afford more energy for heating. Only infrastructural change can effectively address the environmental impact of heating.

Cooling on the other hand, is not as much of necessity for most people as heating is. Although it may not be as comfortable, we can still survive the summers with minimal AC use. The survey indicates that a very large majority of respondents used their ACs often or always in the summer months. New, intellegent thermostats such as the Nest can help reduce AC usage by learning when it is most likely you will want the AC on and turning it off otherwise. However, these systems can be costly for most. Encouraging people to simply reduce their cooling levels may be the easiest way to spread the message about energy awareness.

The Call to Action

Exploring all the data that I collected has been eye opening. There were aspects of students’ energy usage habits that I had expected (high electronics usage), but also aspects that I didn’t expect (lack of knowledge of mpg). What is clear is that there are still information that must be spread if we want to create a more energy aware community. Here are some major points that I believe can be stressed:

  • “Vampire loads” exist and add to your electric bill. Advanced power strips (APS) can reduce the amount of phantom load created by using less energy at times when devices are not being used.
  • Know the fuel economy on your car! Too many people do not know the impact their car has on the environment.
  • Carpooling is a great way to save money on gas and help the environment if it is an option for you.
  • Try and reduce your AC usage; after all, you could live without it if it wasn’t there.

How exactly do we spread these messages in a creative way that will resonate with students? One thing I thought of was creating merchandise, such as t-shirts, tote bags, or decals with visually appealing designs and slogans that matched one of the points above. Creating something that can be sold can educate the buyer on the message that is being conveyed as well as anyone who happens to see it being worn or carried around. The survey indicated that many people regularly used or purchased the products I mentioned, so it has the potential to catch on. Here’s what a basic decal to encourage limiting electronics usage could possibly look like:

Plug icon made by Iconnice from

Hopefully my analysis has provided some insight for you  the reader and maybe even some inspiration to help promote energy awareness! Again, feel free to take the survey I have posted above.



Thanks to my GOA Energy classmates for their ideas, assistance, and support. All charts in this project were created using R, a free statistical analysis software.



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