Do Liberals, Conservatives See Energy Efficiency Differently?

Here’s a statistic that may seem counterintuitive to people on either side of our divided political spectrum: saving energy at home is a bipartisan affair.

At least, that’s what Opower says it’s discovered with its latest data-crunching exercise. The Arlington, Va.-based startup released findings Wednesday showing that its behavioral-science-based methods to get tens of millions of U.S. utility customers to save small but significant amounts of home energy work about as well with conservatives and liberals alike.

That’s not necessarily a common finding in today’s partisan landscape, where a long list of academic research projects and demographic data studies have shown that liberals and conservatives fundamentally differ in many ways.

But then, Opower has built its business on the premise that its approach transcends class, race, income level and other such demographic distinctions, by tapping into some core, common characteristics like the competitive instinct and wanting to perform as well as the neighbors, Barry Fischer, Opower’s head writer, said in an interview.

“We thought this was an interesting opportunity to evaluate across another category,” he said. The survey compared data on about 100,000 customers from across the country, and then used voter registration information to separate out about 27,000 liberals (self-identified as Democrats, Greens and Socialist Party members), about 27,000 conservatives (Republicans, Libertarians or Constitution Party members), and about 47,000 other customers who identified with none of the above.

“The preponderance of other studies that point to the differences between liberals and conservatives — people tend to believe it extends to every facet of people’s lives,” he said. That type of thinking has extended to some studies on energy conservation. For example,Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania reported last month that conservatives may have an aversion to buying light bulbs or other consumer goods with environmental labeling.

But these studies show, at least within statistically insignificant margins of error, that “people from both political sides of the spectrum are responding well, and are enabled to save energy when they get personalized insight,” Fischer said.

Opower, of course, also has tons and tons of data from the years it’s been working with utilities, whether it has been delivering its behavior-mod monthly paper reports, its email and text-based alerts, or establishing interactive relationships with customers via the web. (It’s also working with Honeywell on a smart thermostat platform.)

In fact, Opower data from its project with California utility Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) been used by independent researchers at UCLA, who found in a 2011 study (PDF) that liberals in Sacramento saved 2.4 percent on their electric bills while conservatives saved 1.7 percent. UCLA economists Dora Costa and Matt Kahn also found some conservative-specific “backfire effects” in play — namely, that conservatives who already used less energy than the average consumer tended to increase their energy use when informed of that fact.

Tyler Curtis, Opower’s senior director of advanced analytics and author of the report, said that independent Opower analysis actually yielded a different conclusion, finding that both conservatives and liberals who used less energy than their neighbors continued to eke even further savings out of their energy bills. In fact, as this chart of regional differences shows, in some parts of the country, frugal conservatives saved even more than liberals when told they were already pretty efficient.

Some of the big differences between political affiliations in different parts of the country appear pretty drastic to the untrained eye. Even so, they’re still close enough to render them more or less statistically insignificant, Curtis noted. “Any time you look at the same problem or analysis in multiple different places, almost by chance, you expect an outlier one way or another,” he said.

Even so, Opower’s decision to look at this issue was driven in part by its utility customers worrying about the political ramifications of its various customer energy-efficiency options, he said. “As we’ve expanded to work with utilities that have less of a history of energy efficiency, it is a question that has come up,” he said.

greentechmediaEditor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Greentech Media. Author credit goes to Jeff St. John.

Greentech Media is devoted to covering emerging green and clean technologies. As renewable energy becomes an increasingly large sector, the business community needs a source with up-to-the-minute news on solar, smart grid, enterprise energy solutions, wind energy, electric vehicles, biofuels, water, batteries and storage, finance and VC, and policy throughout the sectors.

5 Comments

  • Reply June 22, 2013

    john shuey

    I wouldn’t expect much difference, save for class differences arising from renting vs owning (or more properly, borrowing). It’s in everybody’s best personal interest to save money.

    That said, conservatives sure took demise of the hot old Edison bulb badly.

  • Reply June 23, 2013

    soylentcorp

    Environmentalists and green tech never did a good job marketing to conservatives due to popular language among activists. If products and speeches were laced with words like ‘conservation’, ‘self-sufficient’, or even ‘save big!’ and ‘military-proven’, then environmentalist ideas would’ve been better received in general. Contrary to popular disbelief, the military has set examples in building facility operations under the guise of ‘energy-efficiency’ but never ‘environmental’ or ‘sustainable’. This is not a lib/con issue, but somehow it became one. Politics is a blatant interruption as always.

    • Reply June 23, 2013

      Alec Sevins

      Explain then, why it’s always Republicans who suddenly become concerned about mercury or battery disposal when said topics involve CFLs or hybrid cars? Ordinarily they are voting to increase pollution, so it’s a hypocritical stance that doesn’t indicate an intrinsic efficiency mindset.

      I think Republicans mainly conserve to save money. They are stuck on the idea that money is above the natural laws of entropy and scarcity. People who buy wasteful full size trucks, often just to spite the EPA, are not interested in conservation.

      • Reply June 27, 2013

        soylentcorp

        You’re talking about Repubs and greed mongers, I’m talking about government, business owners, employees. Not once did I utter a political party. Since you view them all as one and the same bag of dirt, (while Dem’s dirt never stink right?), you’ve already taken an activist side step which doesn’t build bridges or make friends anywhere on the planet. So how are you going to get more people to ‘care’ quickly? How? $$$$ When I learned that hard truth about corporate power (1996 campaign finance reform?), I quit the Green Party in 2000 and went back to Independent, favoring business communities over activists during the Bush years. I was correct 13 years ago that the future (now) was going to be more corporatized than ever. And Dems are not preventing it whatsoever.

        Repubs are fans of hydrogen, diesel and natural gas, Dems for electric/gasoline/plugin hybrids. Both platforms are profitable, both save money, both are expensive. It’s just corporate competition, don’t sweat it. It’s not hypocrisy, it’s strategy. I’ll tell you all day long a pig is pretty if it means making some money or power in the process. That’s not a Repub thing, that’s a Wash DC thing.

        The apathetic crowd who drive old trucks (and old Volvos) spewing blue smoke usually don’t vote. Remember, voter turnout in this country dropped from 62% (2008) to 57% (2012) of all eligible voters. The blue smoke polluters really didn’t vote. They’re not Dems/Repub/Ind. They’re nothing.

  • Reply June 23, 2013

    Alec Sevins

    I think right-wingers mainly do it for money-savings. Many still seem to think “God” will prevent Man from depleting finite resources (or warming the climate). It could also be that this survey didn’t account for the extreme right-wing vs. moderates. Very little respect for nature is shown by the Republican fringe. All they do is make excuses for pollution and gluttony.

    I often wonder about the affiliation of people who think nothing of idling their cars in parking lots for tens of minutes. They’d rather sit in the sun and run the A/C than pull under a tree, even on mild days.

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