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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Energy affordability trended down in first half of year

The beginning of 2016 found American consumers feeling that energy was more affordable that it had ever been since we began our systematic quarterly surveys on the topic three years ago.

As seen in the chart below, the perceived affordability of gasoline reached an all time high of 152 in January. That means that pump prices would have to rise by a factor of 2.5 before they really began to pinch the pocketbooks of the average American consumer. That month, the national average retail gasoline price was $2.06 per gallon, the lowest it had been since prices briefly plummeted in late 2008 into early 2009 during the economic meltdown.

Since then, gasoline prices have risen a bit, reaching an average of $2.41 per gallon in June and July, by when the gasoline affordability index had dropped to 104. Nevertheless, that’s still more affordable than it had been through fall 2014. Over the first year of the Energy Survey, which was launched in October 2013, U.S. pump prices averaged $3.54 per gallon, and during that period, consumers felt that gasoline was only about half as affordable as home energy.

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Consumers’ perceived affordability of gasoline rises with income, but not by as much as one might think

Results from the U-M Energy Survey give us unique insights into how consumers feel about the affordability of motor fuel, which is a major concern for many Americans. The overall gasoline affordability index — which we update quarterly in Energy Survey Indices sidebar on our home page — reflects the average view of all consumers nationwide. It blends together the responses of our diverse, nationally representative sample, averaging over their socioeconomic backgrounds as well as gender, race, age and geographic location. 

Naturally, we expect consumers’ incomes to affect how affordable they perceive energy to be. This is true in general, with higher income consumers reporting higher levels of affordability. However, we also find that the perceived affordability of gasoline does not rise as much as one might think given the large spread in household income across the population. 

The chart below shows how the affordability of gasoline varies according to the five income quintiles, where each quintile represents 20% of the population. It plots the gasoline affordability index by quintile of self-reported household income over the 11 quarters of Energy Survey data gathered to date. The patterns through time are similar to the overall trends in the affordability index as previously reported. All consumers felt that motor fuel became much more affordable after gasoline prices fell in late 2014. Perceived affordability peaked this past January, when pump prices had fallen to a national average of $2.09 per gallon. Continue Reading

Consumers feel that gasoline is a bit less affordable than they said it was last winter

The affordability index for gasoline fell by 23 points from its mid-winter value of 152, which was based on the University of Michigan Energy Survey taken in January 2016. Although by April pump prices only went up 13 cents, to $2.19 per gallon, that was enough to push the gasoline affordability index down to 129. Back in January, when the U.S. average retail price of gasoline dipped to $2.09 per gallon, American consumers  felt that gasoline was more affordable than any time since our quarterly surveys started in October 2013.
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Our affordability index is based on comparing the energy costs that consumers say they would find to be unaffordable to the actual costs — in this case, the average gasoline price — they experience when each quarterly survey is taken. As explained in our Overview of how the indices are calculated, an affordability index of 100 means that consumers believe energy prices would have to double (i.e., see a 100% increase) before they were considered unaffordable. In this context, “unaffordable” means that the energy cost has become so high that consumers feel they would need to change their day-to-day activities in some way. When consumers report that the price they find unaffordable is the same as what they currently pay, then the affordability index is zero.

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How affordable is our energy? Here’s what consumers say as of January 2016

The January 2016 University of Michigan Energy Survey finds a record high in how consumers perceive the affordability of gasoline. 

Over the past six months, consumers’ beliefs about the maximum price of gasoline that they feel they can afford has been on the rise.  The latest quarter of energy survey data — gathered from polling conducted in January 2016 — reveals a 40 point jump in the gasoline affordability index, from 112 in October to 152 in January.  On average across the United States, consumers paid $2.41 per gasoline for gallon.  Averaged across all demographic groups, Americans believe that gasoline would become unaffordable if it reached $5.48 per gallon.

Aff-indices-thru-Jan2016

A year ago, the January 2015 energy survey pegged the gasoline affordability index at 138, which was a new high at the time and reflected a large gain in consumer comfort about pump prices compared to the previous two years.  After dipping again over the remainder of 2015, the January 2016 data sets the new high at 152. Now, consumers believe that gasoline would still be affordable if its price increased by a factor of 2.5, corresponding to the 152% increase represented by the affordability index. (Background on how the the index is calculated from the survey data is given in our Affordability Indices Overview report.)

For home energy,  the affordability index of 137 in January 2016 remained similar to that of the previous quarters.  On average, survey respondents said that they paid $159 per month for their home energy. They told us that a monthly energy bill of $356 would be unaffordable. In other words, even if its cost were to slightly more than double, most Americans would still find home energy to be affordable in terms of their current lifestyle.

See our latest energy affordability report for more details.

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