LIBERAL WITH THE THERMOSTAT: Overall, households reduced their energy consumption by about 2 percent after feedback. But Republicans households only reduced their energy use by 0.4 percent, economists say. Image: New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance
Political ideology helps determine whether homeowners respond to voluntary energy conservation programs, two University of California, Los Angeles, economists have found.
In a study published last month on the National Bureau of Economic Research website, Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn concluded that providing feedback on energy use can actually backfire with some conservatives.
Costa and Kahn merged utility data from 80,000 homes with corresponding voter registration and donation records. The economists found that a Democratic household with green bona fides -- paying for electricity from renewable sources, donating to environmental groups and living in a neighborhood of fellow liberals -- will reduce its consumption by 3 percent in response to feedback.
Meanwhile, a Republican household that doesn't adhere to environmental behaviors will actually increase its consumption by 1 percent. The households that received home energy reports reduced their consumption by about 2 percent overall, but the Republican subset of this group reduced their energy use by 0.4 percent.
About half of the homeowners in the study received home energy reports from OPOWER, a company that contracts with utilities to compare homeowners' energy use with that of neighboring homes of comparable size. Homeowners earn smiley faces if they use less energy than their neighbors. The reports also suggest efficiency improvements, such as installing solar panels or cleaning air conditioner filters.
More Republicans get 'room to improve'
Some California homeowners received bar charts showing the kilowatt-hours they used, comparing it to their most efficient neighbors and then to their average neighbors. Those who scored high received two smiley faces. Those in the medium range got one. And low-ranking energy consumers got this message in bold black letters: ROOM TO IMPROVE. But they also received some money-saving tips.
Based on their usage, a more efficient air conditioning system could cut their energy use in half. If they installed solar panels on their rooftops, the annual return could be 11 percent, probably better than the return on many conservatives' stock portfolios.
The economists speculate that some conservatives may react angrily at being told to save energy, while others may realize their energy use is lower than average and increase it to match perceived norms. Other tactics may be needed to get conservatives to conserve.
"One solution is to tailor messages to different groups," Costa said in an e-mail. "But another possibility is that at some point we may need to make the hard choices of taking costlier actions to lower electricity consumption."
Do conservatives shun voluntary restraint?
"These costly choices," she explained, "could either be raising prices, which has the advantage of not just reducing current consumption but also of making houses built in years of high energy prices more energy efficient, or of imposing stricter building codes."
Costa and Kahn also published another paper last month analyzing the reasons behind California's energy efficiency achievements in the residential sector. Since 1973, residential consumption has remained nearly flat in California, while Americans overall have increased their consumption by 50 percent.
For homes built after 1983, when energy prices have risen, improved building codes have helped to keep consumption flat. But other factors, like rising incomes, increased home sizes and migration to warmer areas, defy the results.