Homer would be proud — not the ancient Greek poet, but the ball cap-wearing mascot for Home Depot. In a new energy survey from the McCombs School of Business, Americans rated home improvements as their top priority for energy efficiency. They cited appliance vendors and other retailers as the biggest contributors to their efficiency plans.
Conserving energy was a special focus in the latest round of the twice-a-year University of Texas Energy Poll, released April 30. The survey, conducted March 3-17, asked 2,133 U.S. adults about their views on a wide variety of energy topics, ranging from light bulbs to natural gas exports.
“We got so many requests for poll information on energy efficiency, from our previous waves, that we thought we could provide a deeper look,” says poll director Sheril Kirshenbaum. The new data offer a snapshot of what energy efficiency means to American consumers and how they’re planning to bring it on home.
It’s the Economics, Stupid
Not only do 79 percent of Americans rate energy efficiency as a priority — up from 72 percent six months ago — but they identify economics as their motivation. Saving money on energy bills is cited by 75 percent as the biggest reason to buy energy-saving products, while 54 percent say it’s because such products fit their budgets. The environment is farther down the list, mentioned by 42 percent.
Those results might sound ho-hum, but it’s a breakthrough for consumers to view energy efficiency as an economic choice, says Michael Webber, associate professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering and deputy director of UT’s Energy Institute. “For the last 30 or 40 years, energy efficiency was a feel-good thing that hippies did. Now, it’s a rational economic decision that people make, once they can figure out the tradeoff between paying money up front and saving money down the road.”
Home is Where the Savings Are
When asked where they can save the most money, 48 percent of consumers point to home heating and air conditioning. Personal vehicles pull up a distant second, at 21 percent, followed by appliances and lighting.
Likewise, consumers focus on building retrofits when asked what efficiency measures they’re likely to take over the next five years. Smart electric meters top their list at 44 percent, while hybrid vehicles have fallen from 34 to 29 percent over the past six months. Only 25 percent are thinking of installing solar panels.
“Home is where most people can relate to energy,” says Kirshenbaum. “They have more control when they’re buying appliances than they do over things like gas prices.”
Energy is even on many of their minds when they’re shopping for a house. Thirty percent say energy costs influenced the decision to buy their current home.
Look for the Labels
When homeowners are appliance-hunting, they pay close attention to labels — especially Energy Star, which designates products that are more energy efficient than federal standards require. Twenty-two years after it was introduced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the label is recognized by 87 percent of respondents. It’s trusted by 74 percent, while 69 percent say energy ratings influence which equipment they purchase.
Webber notes that people pay more attention to energy labels when prices rise. “For years, people disregarded fuel economy stickers on cars. But when gas prices got high in 2008, the stickers became incredibly vital. Labels combined with the desire for energy efficiency make a powerful combination.”
They also read those labels most while they’re walking the aisles of a store. The home appliance and retail industries do the most to make energy-saving products available, say 60 percent of respondents.
David Spence, professor of Business, Government and Society at McCombs, agrees that retailers are on the frontlines of energy change. “I expect we will reach the day when you go to Walmart to pick up solar panels or an energy storage device,” he says.
Other leaders in energy-efficient products, say consumers, are utilities and automakers.
Politics and Efficiency Don’t Mix
Despite the federal government’s behind-the-scenes role in setting efficiency standards for everything from cars to light bulbs, only 31 percent of respondents say it makes a significant contribution. Consumers are more inclined to see the government as getting in the way. “A lot of people feel we haven’t been able to do more because of partisanship in Washington, D.C.,” says Kirshenbaum.
Almost two-thirds of those polled say political squabbling or stalemate is a significant barrier to energy efficient goods and services. When asked who they’re satisfied with on energy issues, the U.S. Congress ranks dead last, at 9 percent. President Obama doesn’t come off much better, at 22 percent.
Uncle, Can You Spare a Dime?
The poll does offer a couple of bright spots for Uncle Sam. One is tax credits. They’re an influence for 47 percent of consumers when they’re buying energy-efficient products. In similar fashion, 49 percent say the lack of personal financial incentives discourages them from buying more.
Respondents would also like to see the government invest more in research and development. Higher funding for new energy technologies is their top federal energy policy priority, mentioned by 66 percent, and most of them would direct that funding to conservation and renewable energy. In another question about energy R&D dollars, 41 percent of respondents said the U.S. should allocate the most money to energy efficiency improvements, while 40 percent identified renewables as the No. 1 R&D focus. Only 11 percent named nuclear power, and 8 percent pointed to clean coal.
Americans care as much as ever about energy conservation, the poll suggests, even as they’re a little less afraid of energy prices. The past two years of surveys document a steady drop in the numbers who consider gasoline prices Very High, from 81 percent down to 60 percent. Those expecting household energy budgets to increase over the next six months are at 67 percent, the lowest percentage since the poll began.
“It’s a good sign that conservation is not so price-sensitive, when we are normally very sensitive to price, as a nation,” says Webber. “This is a sign that there’s a cultural shift going on. People are paying more attention to it. It’s part of the zeitgeist.”
Kirshenbaum sees a decline in the pessimism with which Americans have long viewed energy. “I notice people seem a little more trusting and optimistic overall,” she says.
A possible reflection of that mood, she notes, is the issue of exporting natural gas. A year ago, 39 percent of consumers opposed it, while only 28 percent supported it. Today, the positions have flip-flopped, with 37 percent in favor and 28 percent against.
Spence suggests several years of historically low natural gas prices could be shifting public opinion on exports.
“That’s probably consistent with people at the margins becoming more aware that we have a lot more supply domestically than ever before,” he says. “People might become more favorably disposed because they lack the sense of an impending shortage. People are more aware of the opportunity for gains from trade in world markets.”