Income shapes consumer views on energy reliability

The reliability of the energy used in everyday life is central to Americans’ feelings of security in their homes and daily activities. The continuous improvements in the infrastructure that supplies energy — whether power lines for electricity or pipelines for natural gas and motor fuels — along with the many, largely unseen systems that make these energy networks work — have made reliability ever less of an issue to the average consumer.

It’s not very often, then, that we have to use candles or flashlights because the electricity is out. Americans do experience occasional power outages and sometimes major storms knock out power for numerous homes in an affected area. But overall, as our survey indicates, the vast majority of Americans find that energy is reliable.

Nevertheless, when the issue of reliability is examined in more depth, we discover that some groups of consumers feel that energy is less reliable than other groups. The specific question we ask is this:

Considering all sources of energy you usually use in everyday life, how reliable would you say they are — not at all reliable, slightly reliable, moderately reliable, or very reliable? 

One might expect regional differences how people answer this question to be significant, but in reality such differences are rather small. We observed slight trends in responses over time for some regions, such as a generally positive trend in the West and Northeast in contrast to fairly stable views in the Midwest and the South. Nevertheless, on average 97% of Americans feel that energy use was either moderately or very reliable.

The chart below summarizes the views across regions. Although the differences are minor, the percentages answering “very reliable” are a bit lower in the South and West compared to the Midwest and Northeast, but the percentages answering moderately reliable are higher. On average over the four years of quarterly energy surveys — and in spite of some major storms — 76% of U.S. consumers say that energy is very reliable. Only 3% say that it is no better than slightly reliable.

Income is another factor that could contribute to perceptions of reliability. We indeed have found that the percentage of people who perceive moderately or very reliable energy increases by about 2% for each step up in income tercile. This means that those with income in the top third respond that energy is moderately or very reliable 4% more often than those in the bottom third of the country by income, on average.

The next figure illustrates these income-related differences in the perceived reliability of energy over time. In this chart, we average the four levels of response and map them to a scale of 0-100. The resulting “relative degree of reliability” would be zero if everyone in a group answered that energy was “not at all” reliable; it would be 100 if everyone answered “very reliable.” In spite of the quarter-to-quarter variability, we can see that the gaps in reliability perceptions between income terciles are also steady over time, with a consistently larger gap between the bottom tercile and the upper two terciles.

Gender also plays a role in perceptions of energy reliability. In 2013, 97% of women believed energy was moderately or very reliable while 95% of men believed the same. Since then, the percentage of women with this belief has not significantly changed. However, men have been increasingly saying that they perceive energy to be more reliable. Thus, although men seemed to feel that energy was less reliable than women thought it was when we started the survey, men’s and women’s views have now converged.