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.

Where we do find clear differences in the degree of concern about energy reliability is among respondents of different incomes. The following chart plots over three years’ worth of U-M Energy Survey data on how much consumers say they worry about energy reliability according to their self-reported household income.

The vertical axis shows the degree of concern plotted on a scale that has a neutral level of 50, shown by the solid line at mid-level in the chart. A level of 100 — off the chart — would result if everyone surveyed said that they worried a great deal about how reliable their energy is. Conversely, the level would be zero if everyone answered “not at all” in response to the question. A neutral level of 50 would reflect a set of responses in which the number of consumers expressing higher levels of concern exactly balanced out those expressing lower levels of concern.

The first thing that’s clear is how almost all the results are less than 50; only in April 2014 did we see a spike to a degree of concern averaging 51 from consumers in the lower income tercile. Respondents in the bottom third by income do worry notably more about the energy reliability than those in either the middle or upper income terciles. Nevertheless, except for that one sample in spring 2014, less than half of consumers in the lowest income bracket said they worried a great deal or a fair amount about the reliability of their energy supply. Over the three-and-a-half years since we started the survey in October 2013, the average degrees of concern were 44 for lower income, 37 for middle income and 31 for upper income consumers.