Women more stressed than men about energy costs today, but views vary on future costs

American consumers have been feeling fairly comfortable in general about what they pay for energy over the past year and a half. Gasoline prices averaged $2.50 per gallon until a recent uptick to $2.62 per gallon during October, the month of our most recent energy survey. Nevertheless, consumers’ feelings about their fuel costs held steady, with the latest gasoline affordability index of 100 statistically unchanged from the previous quarter. That means that the price would have to double before the average American felt serious pain at the pump. For home energy bills, the most recent affordability index of 151 differs little from the prior two quarters, remaining up by roughly 30 points compared to last fall and winter. Americans therefore report a ongoing high level of comfort with their recent household energy costs even though the national average Consumer Price Index (CPI) for Energy was up by 9% compared to its summer level.

As we’ve reported in the past, feelings about energy affordability vary predictably with household income. At any point in time, lower income respondents say that costs are closer to their household energy expense “stress points” — the levels they say would cause them to make changes in their daily lives — than the costs are for higher income households. The affordability index can be viewed as a measure of how far away consumers feel their current energy costs are from their energy cost stress points.

Another variable that turns out to have an influence on perceptions of affordability is gender. Since the beginning of the energy survey in October 2013, there has not been a single quarter in which men, on average, gave responses indicating that they felt more stressed by energy costs than women felt. Thus, as the chart below shows, the average affordability index for women has been consistently lower than it has been for men when considering both gasoline prices and home energy bills.

We investigated this trend further by statistically modeling the relationships between gender and views on energy affordability. The results are remarkably similar for the two types of energy, with average responses indicating that men feel that they can pay significantly more than women feel they can. To quantify the difference in views, we statistically modeled the views on home energy and gasoline costs in terms of the percentage differences, so that they could be compared on a common scale. We found that, on average, women believe that home energy and gasoline are 8.7% (±1.0%) and 8.3% (±0.8%) less affordable than men believe it is, respectively.

Looking at the charts above, we next wondered whether the gap between women’s and men’s feelings about affordability gets wider when the overall perception of energy affordability higher. That is to say, do men become even more optimistic than women when times are good? Our analysis indicates that this is not the case; we found no significant relationship between the overall average affordability level and the magnitude of the gap in perceptions of energy affordability.

We did, however, find significant differences in perspective in response to our questions about what consumers expect energy costs to be five years into the future. These results are shown in the next chart.

In this case, women anticipate a smaller increase in gasoline prices than men do, but the reverse it true when it comes to home energy bills. Men expect the price of motor fuel to rise by 24% on average over the next five years, while women expect a somewhat but statistically lower 21% increase in the pump price. When comes to home energy, however, women expect a 35% increase while men expect a 28% increase.

Other variables that could impact the differences between men’s and women’s perceptions of affordability are geographic region and household income. We controlled for geography by examining the gap between men’s and women’s views in each of the four regions of the country (West, Midwest, South and Northeast). We found that women consistently felt that energy was less affordable than men thought it was in all regions. Controlling for income by examining the gap in views separately for the lower, middle, and upper income terciles, we again found that men consistently had more positive views than women when it came to the affordability of energy.

What makes women more wary of energy costs than men? Our data can’t uncover the answer to that question, but these results on gender and the perceived affordability of energy are consistent with our data showing that women are more concerned than men about the impact of energy use on the environment and about energy reliability.

Environmental worry rises as concerns about energy costs fall

Over the past year, the degree of concern that American consumers express about the effect of energy on the environment has increased even as their concern about what they have to pay for energy has decreased. That’s the clear picture that emerges in the latest data from the University of Michigan Energy Survey, which has tracked U.S. consumers’ concerns about the affordability, reliability and environmental impact of energy over the past four years. As seen in this chart, 65 percent of survey respondents say that they personally worry at least a fair amount about how energy use affects the environment. That’s roughly 20 percentage points higher than the number who express that degree of concern about the affordability of energy. (See our questionnaire for the exact questions asked and their sequence in the survey.) As it has since the start of the U-M Energy Survey, concern about energy reliability is much lower, with an average of 30 percent of respondents expressing at least a fair amount of concern about whether they will reliably have electricity, heat or fuel.

Concern about the environment edged out concern about affordability even from the start of the U-M Energy Survey in fall 2013. Gasoline prices were much higher then, but environmental worries became statistically greater than concern about energy affordability even before oil prices fell in late 2014. Since then the gap between environmental concern and concern about energy costs has widened, particularly over the past year and a half (the most recent six quarterly surveys, from April 2016 through July 2017). Our next survey, taken over the month of October, is just wrapping up, but once we analyze the new data, we expect the gap between environmental and cost concerns to remain wide.

A closer look at consumer feelings about energy costs can be seen in the affordability index values, which we track separately for gasoline prices and home energy bills. The next chart shows these indices over the past four years; here, a higher index means that consumers fine energy to be more affordable, which generally correlates with a lesser degree of concern about energy costs. An affordability index of 100 means that an energy cost would have to go up by 100 percent relative to what it was when the survey was taken. Comparing this chart to the first one, it’s clear that the gap between consumers’ degrees of concern about the environment and about energy affordability widened when gasoline prices fell in late 2014, making motor fuel more affordable than it had been over the year before. As detailed in our latest article on gasoline affordability, consumers views on this score have been statistically stable over the past year. Since last summer, the index has hovered around the 100 level, meaning that pump prices would have to double before the average consumer would be motivated to change how they travel. As for home energy bills, consumers have recently found them to be significantly more affordable over the past two quarters.

We also examined how energy-related concerns vary according to a consumer’s household income. One might expect that the extent to which individuals worry about a given energy-related issue would fall as incomes rise. As seen in the next chart, that is certainly the case for concerns about the affordability and reliability of energy. (The error bars represent 95% confidence intervals.) These results are shown on a scale of 0-100, where zero represents the responses of consumers who say that they are not all concerned about an issue and 100 represents those who express a great deal of concern. As for the affordability of energy, consumers in the lower third of the distribution by self-reported household income have a concern level of 58. This metric drops to 47 for middle-income consumers and 41 for upper-income consumers, both below the neutral level of 50 that would reflect consumers being neither very concerned nor unconcerned.  Concern about the reliability of energy is lower overall, but shows a similarly clear drop off as household income rises.

Regarding the impact of energy use on the environment, lower income consumers express a somewhat greater degree of concern than others. However, on this issue the trend across income categories is much less pronounced. We see no statistically significant difference between the views of middle and upper income consumers, and the average level of concern is 62 across all income brackets. This finding refutes a view, pushed over the years by anti-regulatory pundits, that the environment is mainly a concern of the “elites,” and that lower and middle-income Americans concerned about costs don’t have the luxury of worrying about the environment. Our data show that lower-income Americans are in fact more concerned than average. In short, Americans express a relatively high level of the concern about how energy affects the environment regardless of their income.

A carbon tax: how much would be too much?

Even in a debate as heated as the one over global warming, recent proposals by some Republican elders offer hope that cooler heads might one day prevail. They propose a conservative way to address climate risk: harnessing market forces with a carbon tax while refunding dividends to consumers. If such an approach is in the cards, what would it mean for consumers, particularly for buying gasoline without too much pain at the pump?

The University of Michigan Energy Survey asks consumers how much they can afford to pay for energy before the cost becomes so high that they would have to significantly change their lifestyle. The responses are the basis for the affordability indices we publish seasonally, one for home energy and the other for gasoline. Although we don’t ask explicitly about a carbon tax, our data equip us to estimate how many consumers would be pushed outside their comfort zones by a tax of a given magnitude.

Photos of James A. Baker III, Bill McKibben, George P. Shultz and Laurene Powell Jobs

Supporters of a carbon tax include (clockwise from upper right): Bill McKibben, George Shultz, Laurene Powell Jobs and James Baker.

The Climate Leadership Council — whose headliners include former GOP cabinet members James A. Baker III, George P. Shultz and Henry M. Paulson, Jr. — has floated a proposal to tax carbon dioxide (CO2) at $40 per ton. A carbon tax of that level translates to an added 36¢ per gallon at the pump.

Motor fuel is less expensive now than it was three years ago; the national average spanning the period of higher prices through the most recent data is $2.80 per gallon. A $40 per ton carbon tax would bump the price to $3.16 per gallon. Based on our survey responses, that price would still be considered affordable by more than 90% of Americans. It is well below the $5.00 per gallon level typical of the average response to our survey question, which asks:

At what price per gallon would gasoline get so high that it becomes unaffordable to you (and your family)? 

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In their latest views on energy affordability, consumers gain a spring in their step

After starting 2017 on a low note in their views about the affordability of energy, U.S. consumers were feeling better about the situation by spring. The affordability indices for both gasoline and home energy increased from January to April. Derived from the University of Michigan’s quarterly Energy Survey, each affordability index is scaled so that a value of 100 reflects a consumer belief that energy costs would have to double (that is, go up by 100 percent) before really crimping their household lifestyle.

As of the latest data, taken during the month of April, the gasoline affordability index showed a slight increase to 105. The home energy affordability index rose significantly, reaching 148, its highest level since the U-M Energy Survey began in October 2013, as shown in the chart below. 

These gains occurred even though there was no significant change in the Index of Consumer Sentiment, which has remained quite stable since the beginning of the year. That measure of U.S. consumers’ general feelings about the state of the economy is reported monthly by the U-M Surveys of Consumers, to which the Energy Survey is a quarterly add-on.

As seen in the chart, the latest home energy affordability index surpasses all previous quarters by nearly 10 points. April 2017 also marks the first quarter for which the home energy index changed more than the gasoline index. Typically, the home energy index varies over a narrower range (38 points between its lowest and highest recorded values to date) than the gasoline index (which has seen a range of 101 points, due to the volatility of gasoline prices).

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Consumers were not as pleased with pump prices this winter as they were last winter

Credit: Andrew Philips, Postmedia Network

January 2017 marks the fourth year of the U-M Energy Survey. In previous years, consumers felt that gasoline was more affordable in January than at other times of the year. But this winter was different: the gasoline affordability index dropped 17 points to 94, the lowest score since July 2015. The decline is only partly explained by gasoline prices themselves, which did see an atypical increase in January this year. In each of the prior three years, gasoline prices fell by an average of $0.50 per gallon from October to January. This time however, the price at the pump actually increased by 9 cents per gallon. Consumers expecting a seasonal reprieve never saw one.

The latest index results also mark the ninth double-digit swing in ten quarters. Despite this volatility in the index, which tracks how consumers feel about affordability, the dollar-level responses to our survey question about “What would the price of gasoline have to reach before it became unaffordable to you?” have not changed much. In other words, the ups and downs of the index can be attribute mostly to the changes in gasoline prices, not changes in consumer views about the dollar threshold for serious pain at the pump.

In contrast to the story for gasoline, the home energy affordability index remains a model of consistency. The January 2017 value increased by a modest 3 points to 119, just below its average since October 2013 of 124. As seen in the chart below, this measure of how affordable consumers think their home energy bills are has rarely deviated from this average, now based on 14 quarters of U-M Energy Survey data.

Note that the error bars are much wider for home energy than they are for gasoline, which reflects how consumer responses about the affordability of home energy are much more variable than they are for gasoline. We suspect that this statistical “squishiness” of views on home energy costs may have something to do with consumers not having as clear an idea of what they pay for home energy as they do for the price of gasoline. The latter is, after all, highly visible and something most Americans get to look at weekly, which is about how often motorists have to fill their tanks. In contrast, home energy is billed monthly. Also, more and more consumers are on an auto-pay plan, and so may not have a very precise recollection of their electric and other home energy bills when we ask about them during the survey.

Energy reliability remains a lesser concern among most Americans

Reliability — making sure that their customers have energy 24/7 — is a top concern for power companies and other energy suppliers. Energy professionals often are surprised to hear it’s not such a great concern for customers themselves. Well, that’s a testament to just how well America’s energy companies do their jobs in keeping the juices flowing, whether in the form of electricity in the wires or gasoline at the pumps.

Our latest survey results show that, on average, two-thirds of U.S. consumers worry about the reliability of energy only a little or not at all. One-third worry about it at least a fair amount, and over the past two years only 11 percent of consumers said they worried a great deal about energy reliability. During the telephone interviews, our pollsters defined reliability as referring to whether members of a respondent’s household could get the energy they need when they need it.

The table below compares our latest quarterly sample (for Winter 2017, based on data collected throughout the month of January) to the average results for the four quarterly samples gathered last year. The number of consumers expressing higher levels of concern was a bit lower this winter than it was for the prior year on average. That pattern is consistent with what we’ve seen in the past, with the relative level of concern being lower during January than it is in April.

The spring sample, taken each April, often sees the greatest level of concern about energy reliability. Although our survey doesn’t ask specifically about power outages or other events that households might have recently experienced, we suspect that we see a heightened concern in many April samples because spring can bring strong thunderstorms in many parts of the country.

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What source of energy do Americans think affects the environment the most?

One of the questions we ask during the Energy Survey is about what source of energy Americans think affects the environment the most. This question is the third in a sequence that probes views on the environmental dimensions of energy (see our questionnaire here).

We first ask each respondent how much he or she believes that energy affects the environment. Based on the latest data, 77 percent of Americans say that they think energy affects the environment at least at fair amount, in contrast to 20 percent who say it affects the environment only a little and 3 percent who don’t believe energy use affects the environment at all.

We next ask about the aspect of the environment that they think is most affected by energy use. Based on their answer to that question, we then ask the respondents what source of energy they think is most responsible. This question is posed in a completely open-ended fashion; the university’s professional telephone interviewers do not recite a list of energy sources from which to choose or otherwise prompt a respondent for an answer. The results are shown in the following chart, which tracks consumer responses over the first three years of the U-M Energy Survey. The most frequent answer is some form of petroleum, reflecting responses of petroleum, oil or a petroleum product such as gasoline. Although the number of respondents who fingered petroleum varied over the three years of quarterly samples shown, no clear trend is apparent. On average, 36 percent of consumers said that some form of petroleum was the source of energy that affected the environment the most.

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Energy affordability evens out in 2016

For the first time since the start of our quarterly Energy Survey, home energy and gasoline have run neck-and-neck in terms of affordability for an entire year. That is to say, 2016 saw no statistically significant difference between the two indices, a situation never before observed for four consecutive quarters. Though customers recently feel similarly about the costs of gasoline and home energy within each quarter, the affordability scores for both have dropped significantly since peaking in January. The gasoline affordability index, which seems to vary seasonally, dropped 41 points from January to July. The index for home energy dropped only half as much, by just under 21 points.

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Concerns about energy’s impact on the environment continue to edge out concerns about affordability

With three years and counting of data, a clear trend has emerged: consumers are more concerned about how energy impacts the environment than they about whether it is sufficiently affordable and reliable. The extent to which consumers worry about reliability — that is, whether their lights stay on and the fuels they need are readily available — has consistently lagged their concerns about energy costs and environmental impacts.

Over the first four quarterly samples starting with the launch of the U-M Energy Survey in October 2013, the difference between the levels of concern about the environment and about affordability was not statistically significant, even though the average for the environment was nominally higher than that for affordability. However, the significance of the gap grew as additional data came in. By the second year, we were able to report that the environment had pulled ahead of affordability as Americans’ top energy-related concern. As seen in the chart below, based on data over the first three years of the survey, concern about affordability has lessened a bit in 2016 while concern about the environment has remained strong in spite of some transient ups and downs.   

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On the seasonal trend of gasoline affordability

Over the course of each year we’ve conducted the Energy Survey to date, consumers find gasoline to be most affordable in the winter, when our January sample is taken. These responses — plotted in the chart below — show how consumers feel that gasoline is less affordable at other times of the year, as reflected in notably lower affordability index values derived from the spring (April), summer (July) and fall (October) quarterly samples. For reference, an affordability index of 100 means that the fuel price would have to double (i.e., rise by 100 percent) before consumers would consider it unaffordable. (See this overview of how the affordability index is calculated.) 

As of the most recent survey data we analyzed in July 2016, the gasoline affordability index was 104. That’s down nearly fifty points from what it had been in January when it reached a value of 152, which was the highest level of perceived motor fuel affordability since the U-M Energy Survey began in October 2013. Over the first five quarters of the survey, the gasoline affordability index was well below 100, reflecting the fact that gasoline prices had been much higher than they have been more recently.

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