Grade 6-8, 9-12

Be an Energy Saver

Updated: October 10 2019,
Author: Douglas Briggs

This lesson focuses on the scarce and nonrenewable nature of fossil fuels in order to stimulate student thinking about energy conservation. It emphasizes the fact that saving energy can be good for the wallet as well as the earth’s future. Students play a memory game that challenges them to find people-powered substitutes for things that use electricity and gas. Students then use the federally-mandated EnergyGuide labels to estimate the cost savings of energy- efficient home appliances. In a final activity, students explore positive and negative economic incentives that motivate people to conserve energy. Many federal energy-related programs and policies are featured in this lesson. These include, besides the Energy Guide label, EnergyStar certification, the Fuel Economy Guide for motor vehicles, and a diverse collection of taxes, tax breaks and subsidies.
In this lesson, students examine options for reducing their dependence on energy resources, especially by substituting people power for other forms of energy and purchasing energy efficient home appliances. Students also explore some of the government programs that are influencing consumer choices in the marketplace.


High energy prices are in the news again! Dwindling supply relative to demand has put the squeeze on oil – increasingpower lines prices at the gas pump as well as for home heating fuel. Given that natural gas-fired generators are the source of much of our electricity, the higher price of oil has a ripple effect on electricity bills.

The August 2003 blackout has brought to the forefront another reason to anticipate higher energy prices. The nation’s electrical transmission system — the high-voltage network that connects the power plants to the local distribution companies that deliver electricity to end users — needs to be updated. Someone will have to pay for this investment in the power grid and ultimately, it will be the consumer.

Higher market prices are serving as an economic incentive for people to reduce energy consumption. Government programs in the form of taxes and subsidies serve as additional incentives for saving energy.

Learning Objectives

  • Identify energy alternatives that use people power.
  • Compute the operating cost of a major appliance.
  • Choose the best deal on an appliance after considering both the purchase price and lifetime operation costs of an appliance.
  • Explain how economic incentives influence people’s behavior.

Resource List

  • Energy Conservation Game: Students can complete this drag and drop activity which teaches them about energy conservation.
    Energy Conservation Game
  • Life-Cycle Costing Manual for the Federal Energy Management Program, Handbook 135: This PDF provides information on calculating the life cycle costs of appliances.
  • Refrigerator Energy Saver: Students will complete this activity to learn how much it costs to run a refrigerator and how much energy it takes.
    Refrigerator Energy Saver
  • Government Incentives: Students will complete this interactive activity, distinguishing positive and negative incentives then summarize how these economic incentives influence energy conservation.
    Government Incentives
  • The Weatherization Assistance Program: Discusses how low income families can make their homes more energy efficient, thus saving money.

NOTE: If you would prefer to have students use the current rate for a kilowatt of electricity in your community, you will need to research the current rate on a local utility bill or have a copy of a bill available so that students can find the rate on their own.


All activities in this lesson can be completed by students independently, in teams or in small groups.

Activity 1: People Power

bike ridingPlay the Energy Conservation Game to learn about conserving energy.

Reinforce this activity, by having students think of other ways to substitute people power for fossil fuel and electricity. Discuss how these changes would influence their lives in terms of comfort and convenience.

Activity 2: Energy-Efficient Appliances

[NOTE: You may want to print this worksheet in advance and distribute it to the students instead of having them print it during the lesson. If you prefer, you can also direct students to use the current rate for a kilowatt of electricity in your community. Give students the rate or have them find it on a copy of a local utility bill.]

Students may be unfamiliar with the terms top load and front load. Explain that the two washers they are comparing have different designs. Older washers are typically top load in design. Front loaders — this means laundry is put in from the front of the machine versus the top – are relatively new to the U.S. market. Front-loaders work by tumbling the clothes and then spin-drying them in a tub that rotates on a horizontal axis. There are some exceptions. One manufacturer makes a horizontal-axis machine that loads from the top, and another company sells a machine with an axis that is between vertical and horizontal. Front-loaders designs are just as effective in cleaning clothes as top-loaders designs. Some studies report they actually clean clothes better.

Typically, front-loaders use less water: from one-third to one-half the amount that top-loaders require. Because less water is used, less natural gas or electricity is required to heat the water. The machines also spin faster and clothes are wrung out more completely. Not factored into the label estimates is the fact that the improved spin-drying reduces the cost of running a clothes dryer as well.

Horizontal-axis washers (front-loaders) have one major drawback – the initial purchase price is almost always greater than the price for vertical-axis machine (most top loaders). As the worksheet example illustrates, however, the energy savings provided by front-loaders can more than compensate for the higher purchase cost. In some areas of the U.S., utility companies, environmental groups and government agencies help sweeten the deal by offering incentives to consumers who buy front-loaders.

When students have completed their worksheets, discuss:

  1. Was the washer with the lowest sales price the best deal?
    [No, the cost of energy used was also important]
  2. The purpose of this worksheet is to demonstrate that investments in products or systems designed to save energy provide a return through future savings from lower energy bills. The calculations assume that fuel prices remain stable. What happens if fuel prices increase?
    [Energy savings will be greater.]
  3. If you have not already done so, point out to students that the two washers vary in design. The relatively new front-loading designs use less water. They also spin clothes dry faster and extract more moisture. How do these factors influence the cost of doing laundry?
    [Energy use is reduced because less water must be heated and the spin cycle extracts water more quickly. The lower moisture content after spinning results in lower energy use when operating a clothes dryer.]
  4. What other factors might you consider to get the best deal on an appliance besides sales price and energy efficiency?
    [Repair records for other appliances made by the same manufacturer, the cost of repairs and maintenance, the source of energy – natural gas tends to be less expensive than electricity for operating appliances. A good source of information on appliance dependability and repair records is Consumers Union which publishes the monthly Consumer Reports magazine.]

[NOTE: There are a number of ways to analyze the life cycle cost of appliances. The calculation in this activity illustrates one of the simpler methods. A more complex approach is life-cycle costing which takes into consideration all costs (purchase, installation, operation, maintenance and repair costs) less salvage value – all expressed as present dollar values. For definitions of these terms and the formula for performing life-cycle cost analysis, see the Life-Cycle Costing Manual for the Federal Energy Management Program, Handbook 135.]

Once your students have finished working on their worksheet, have them finish this activity. Use this sample of an Energy Guide for a refrigerator-freezer to answer the questions .Then have them print out their results to hand in. The answers to the questions are below.

  1. 23 cubic feet
  2. 800 kilowatts (kWh)
  3. $65
  4. e, all of the above
  5. 685 kilowatts (kWh)

Discuss how much it would cost to operate the most efficient refrigerator-freezer for a year. Make sure that students round their answers.

Activity 3: Government Incentives

Have your students complete this activity distinguishing between positive and negative incentives then summarize how these economic incentives influence energy conservation. Discuss the correct answers with your class. View Interactive ActivityIn contrast, a true tax credit is a dollar for dollar reduction in taxes paid. In the tax credit example provided as part of this activity, the taxpayer would first calculate their taxes using an IRS 1040 form. The taxpayer can then reduce the amount of tax he or she pays by the precise amount (within limits) spent on home improvements for energy conservation.


  1. What motivates you to conserve energy?
    [Answers will vary. As pointed out in the student version of the conclusion, some power lines people conserve just because they think it is the right thing to do. Others are influenced by different economic incentives. Of course, there may also be some students who claim nothing presently motivates them to be an energy saver. If you have some of the latter, point out that there are consequences with this choice. Each dollar used to pay for energy represents a dollar less that can be used to purchase other goods and services they might prefer. Examples from school might be more computers, additional books in the library, painting the cafeteria, and after-school activities. At home, many students would probably prefer more money to be spent on their allowance, a family vacation, a nicer car, etc.]
  2. Do you think your motives for conserving energy may change as you get older?
    [Most students have little awareness of how much is paid for the natural energy used in their home and school. Their knowledge of prices at the gas pump is influenced by whether they drive and more importantly, whether they pay for the gasoline they use. Having to pay for energy can be a significant factor in determining the effectiveness of economic incentives.]

Extension Activity


  1. Create a bulletin board featuring power alternatives: coal, oil, natural gas, wood, nuclear power, people power, draft animals, wind, water, and the sun.
  2. Have students imagine that beginning tomorrow morning there is no electricity. Have them write a paper on how their lives would change, what “necessities” would no longer function, and what would be used in place of things no longer useful.
  3. Have students keep a log for one day of ways they conserved energy.
  4. Using publishing software, create brochures or web pages with tips on saving energy.
  5. Have students conduct home energy audits. An interactive online audit source is:
  6. Have students research and do a report on one of the following federal energy conservation programs:
    • The Energy Guide Label mandated by the federal government which provides an estimate of a product’s energy efficiency for most major home appliances.
    •   voluntary labeling and certification program operated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). ENERGY STAR®-labeled products include air conditioners, clothes washers, dishwashers, heating equipment, home office equipment, indoor/outdoor lighting, refrigerators and windows.
    •   which helps consumers compare gas mileage on vehicles manufactured from 1985 to the present.
    •   which offers a tax break for purchasers of the new hybrid gas/electric vehicles.
    • The Weatherization Assistance Program   for low-income households which funds energy audits and home improvements that increase energy efficiency.
    • State and local incentives for conserving energy. Sources of incentives include government, utility companies and some private organizations. Types of incentives vary greatly but may include rate reductions, free energy audits, weatherization assistance and financial help or people who purchase energy-efficient appliances.


Assessment tools are provided as part of two activities.

The worksheet Using Energy Guides in Activity 2 requires students to use federally-mandated Energy Guides to calculate the cost of operating appliances. Students must also make and support a choice between two washers based on purchase and operating costs.

At the end of Activity 3, students are asked to submit a summary of how positive and negative economic incentives influence consumer behavior with respect to energy conservation.