Who are the low energy users: Lessons for climate policy

Panel: 9. Consumption and behaviour

This is a peer-reviewed paper.

Authors:
Reuben Deumling, We Don’t Need Oil, USA
Deborah Poskanzer, USA
Alan Meier, Energy Efficiency Center, University of California, Davis, USA

Abstract

California, like many other regions, has CO2 emissions goals requiring drastic reductions from baseline levels. But a small percentage of households already live at electricity consumption levels consistent with the state's goal of 80% below 1990 levels. Low energy use is often associated with undesirable characteristics, such as poverty, thermal discomfort, or small dwelling size. We investigated the lifestyle, behavior, and satisfaction of these low users to see what attributes or behaviors best correlated with low use. We studied about 700 households drawn from the lowest 10% of electricity consumers in Sacramento, California. Surprisingly, the low users encompassed a diverse cross section of customers. The low users were similar to the general population in terms of age, income, education, appliance ownership, and dwelling characteristics. Low-use households tended to be smaller, but not enough to explain the entirety of low usage. Interviews revealed that those in the lowest 10% typically pursued low consumption deliberately and enthusiastically, and were aware of their status as low users. The topic of energy conservation was salient in their social conversations. They employed diverse and creative strategies to maintain thermal comfort without excess energy use, often exceeding expert recommendations. Finally, the distribution of self-reported quality of life was no different from that of the general population living at much higher consumption levels. Overall, the key determinants of low use were a positive engagement with improvisation and experimentation, and the salience of energy in personal or social life, rather than poverty or other involuntary restraints. The association of low energy use with deprivation has been an obstacle to promoting more aggressive goals for reduction of residential use. In contrast, the population of low-users should be treated as a valuable source of peer advice and lifestyle modeling.

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