Homes with high energy consumption are likely to provide us more opportunities to save energy. If that’s true, then why don’t we see more programs and businesses geared toward the high users?

Regulatory authorities discourage utilities from creating programs targeting the high users. It is politically unpopular for utility programs funded by ratepayers to support the wealthy. High users, the logic goes, are probably wealthy and therefore able to save energy without assistance. The same attitudes prevail at the federal level, as evidenced by the low-income weatherization programs; caps on tax credits; and less emphasis on the frequent causes of high use, such as swimming pools, hot tubs, heaters for water beds, and well pumps. That view is understandable, but if that’s where the cheapest energy savings lie, should this benign neglect be reconsidered?

It’s also important to realize that high users are not necessarily rich. The city of Tallahassee compiled an impressive list of 101 explanations for high summer utility bills. Only a few of them are associated with high-wealth possessions or activities; most are linked to defective equipment or mismanagement. A separate Florida study of 172 representative homes found that the highest user—clocking in at 40,000 kWh/year—was definitely not wealthy; he had a defective air conditioner and a broken timer on the pool pump.

A few communities have already recognized the problem of high energy and water use. For example, Marin County in California, and some mountain towns in Colorado, have enacted stricter energy efficiency codes for McMansions and other oversize homes. These large homes are almost certain to become high users, so the codes effectively target high users. Some utilities have operated under the radar, using bill stuffers as a means of targeting the high users. But these are the exceptions that call attention to the absence of other approaches.

Household Energy Use Trends 


High users often pay more for electricity than average users, because a quarter of the nation’s utilities have increasing block tariffs. This gives high users a greater financial incentive to save.

At the same time, we know surprisingly little about the high users. Is their high energy use caused by more heating and cooling? More appliances? Unique appliances? Defective equipment? Less regard to energy costs? Is the low-hanging fruit just a mirage? It seems that some research could go a long way here. A recent survey conducted by Seattle City Light is full of intriguing results and hints at the strange habits of the high users. In Seattle, the longer people occupy a home, the more electricity they use (see Figure 1). Perhaps “appliance accretion” is one cause of higher energy use—that is, once a television gets plugged in, it never gets unplugged. Surely we need to learn more so that we can make energy conservation irresistible to this important group.

 

Figure 1. Annual electricity use, in kWh/year, by number of years Seattle City Light customer lived at same address. Source: “Residential Customer Characteristics Survey.” Seattle City Light, February 2010.

 

- Alan Meier

 

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