It’s been a year-and-a-half since Occupy Wall Street protesters popularized the concept of the 1%— the upper strata of America’s richest, who control a whopping 40% of the nation’s wealth. But on Outlier—the data-crunching blog maintained by energy efficiency company Opower—researchers are drawing attention to a new class of resource hoggers: the top 1% of energy-using households who consume 4% of total residential energy.
However, the study’s findings aren’t likely to stoke a wave of activism for "redistribution" of energy (the way that growing economic inequality has made the majority of Americans interested in raising taxes on the rich). Opower’s research shows that energy use is not nearly as unevenly distributed as income is. And that means to save energy as a nation, we need to look at approaches that will reduce electricty in all households, not just focusing on cuts to the system’s heaviest users.
Analyzing the energy use of more than 8 million homes in 2011, Opower’s study incuded the following findings:
- The top 1% of electricity-using households spend about $4,000 on electricity annually, compared to the $1,000 the average house spends.
- Each household in the top 1% of energy users produces the same amount of pollution as 5 cars over the course of the year, as opposed to the average household’s equivalent of 1.25 cars-worth.
- The 1% of largest homes use 2.5 times more electricity than an average size home (at 1,600 square feet).
That last piece of data makes sense: of course bigger homes use more energy. But the study found that factors other than home size could make a huge difference in a household’s energy use, including "income, occupancy, climate, construction features, and especially behavior."
For example, if a large family lives in one house, that household will use a lot of energy (but notably less energy than if every family member moved to his own house or apartment.)
And while we might want to think that high-income residents of suburban McMansions are to blame for excessive energy use, higher income people are more likely to invest in their homes’ energy-efficiency with added insulation and triple-pane windows.
Based on this variability, the study concludes that:
Large-scale energy efficiency efforts (e.g. cutting energy waste in half by 2030) can’t exclusively focus on the very highest users, for the simple reason that such homes are in limited supply (e.g. only 4% of homes). Instead, saving energy at scale requires a broad-based approach that works well for homes across the usage spectrum.
So, to save energy, we need to think harder about initiatives that reach lots of people, as opposed to focus on only the (seemingly) low-hanging fruit: people with bigger homes and lots of income.