If you’re active on social media, you may have noticed a viral video about U.S. wealth inequality making the rounds. In just a few short days this video was watched and shared by millions, raising awareness about the difference between our perception of how wealth is divided and the reality.
According to a report from energy start-up Opower, however, wealth isn’t the only thing unequally distributed in America. Drawing upon its vast set of energy consumption data, the company found that those with the most cash in their pocket are also the ones sucking up a lot of our precious power.
Starting with 25.8 million homes for which we had 2011 electricity usage information, we narrowed the dataset to 8.57 million American homes that we confirmed have natural-gas heating systems (the prevalent heating fuel across the US),” explains report author Barry Fischer. “In this way, we could make an apples-to-apples statistical comparison of different homes’ energy use.”
What he discovered was that the top 1 percent of homes consume a full four times more electricity–spend approximately $4,000 per year on electricity– than average. Supplying electricity to each household in the top 1% entails greenhouse gas pollution from power plants equivalent to driving 5 gasoline-powered cars for a year. In comparison, the average household’s electric usage contributes pollution equivalent to 1.25 cars.
The author suspected that a bigger bank account lead the nation’s wealthiest to buy bigger houses, which require more energy to heat, cool, and fill with energy-sucking electronics. But it’s not just that simple. “While a general correlation between home size and energy consumption makes intuitive sense (e.g. more space to cool, more rooms with TVs), a deeper examination of the data reveals a complication: there can be substantial variation in electricity use among homes that have the same square footage,” writes Fischer.
According to Opower, one reason why the distribution of electricity is more equal than income is that, although wealthier Americans are likely to live in larger homes, they are also more able and likely to invest in energy-efficiency improvements.
Check out the full report here to learn more about the correlations between distribution of electricity and income, and why it matters.