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.