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Survey Finds ‘Learned Helplessness’ in Americans with Rising Utility Bills

Although residential electricity consumption is increasing, a national survey finds U.S. consumers blame their utility or their inefficient home for their rising energy bills rather than accepting the blame for using more power.

The survey, released Tuesday by Knoxville-based Shelton Group, found Americans are more likely to blame an inefficient home (25%) or utilities (18%), and not their own demand for energy (12%). Further, many of those who’ve changed habits or made efficiency improvements say their utility bills have remained the same, or gone up.

“We’re seeing an unfortunate consumer tendency to avoid responsibility for wasting energy. Instead, more people are blaming outside forces over which they feel they have little or no control," said Suzanne Shelton, CEO of Shelton Group. “It’s a case of learned helplessness: People are giving up on conserving energy because they think there’s nothing they can do.”

Shelton’s eighth annual Energy Pulse™ survey, entitled “Motivating the Apathetic Energy Consumer,” found 80% of Americans think they’re using the same amount or less energy than in the past. Yet residential electricity consumption has actually increased, according to government statistics.

Shelton’s survey also found:

  • Consumers have a high tolerance for bill increases. When asked how much their bill would have to increase to force them to make energy-efficient renovations, the average answer was $120. Based on the average reported winter heating bill ($162.80), this would be a 74% increase; or a 73% increase over the average reported summer cooling bill ($164.50).
  • Americans have increasingly unrealistic expectations for returns on efficiency-improvement investments. When asked how much they would have to save to justify spending $4,000 on energy-efficient improvements, expectations landed around $139 per month. That works out to an annual savings of $1,668, or a reduction of approximately 85%, based on the average reported utility bill. There was also a significant jump in the number of consumers expecting a more than $200 reduction in their monthly energy bills — up 10% this year to 16%. This would require a homeowner to be nearly off the grid, generating his or her own energy.
  • The propensity to make energy-efficient product purchases dropped from last year. Improvements with the highest propensities include a solar system (with 32% likely or very likely to install one, up 8% over last year), new water heater (15%, down 5%), and windows (15%, down 3%).
  • When offered a solar energy lease option, requiring no money down, interest jumped to over 60%. This increased desire for solar connects back to consumers’ desire for an 85% reduction in monthly bills. Installing solar is, most likely, the only way most could achieve such a reduction. This may be another clue to some Americans’ emerging desire to pull away from today’s centralized energy systems and establish personal energy independence.

What about the many Americans surveyed who have apparently given up trying to conserve energy? Shelton says utilities could take several steps to re-engage them, including:

  • Provide more smart meters and energy-monitoring tools to get consumers more educated on their energy consumption. 
  • Offer incentives that reward multiple energy-efficiency improvements, rather than one-off improvements, to help homeowners reach the number of actions required to see a real reduction in their bill. 
  • Shifting to time-of-use billing to give homeowners a new incentive to conserve energy at peak-use times.

“It’s all about giving consumers a feeling of control,” Shelton said. “Americans want power over their utility bills, and right now, they feel they don’t have that.”

Jennifer Elks is Managing Editor at Sustainable Brands. She is a writer, editor and foodie who is passionate about improving food systems, closing loops and creating more livable cities. She loves cooking, wine, cooking with wine, correcting spelling errors in… [Read more about Jennifer Elks]

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