Consumers remain comfortable with home energy costs while pump prices edge up

Source: GM Media Stock ImageAlthough the recent rise in pump prices has dampened views on the affordability of gasoline, Americans remain generally content with what they pay for home energy. Our latest analysis, using the Spring (April) 2018 data from the U-M Energy Survey, yields a home energy affordability index of 126 (±10). Although the previous quarter (Winter 2018) saw a nominal dip in this measured of perceived affordability, this latest value remains in line with what the index has been for some time now. In short, consumers are on average comfortable with what they pay to heat their homes and run the appliances, lights, electronics and other energy-consuming devices they use in their everyday lives.

As seen in the chart below, which compares the Energy Survey’s affordability metric for home energy with that for gasoline, the Spring 2018 value is quite close to the long-term average index of 125. That means that monthly energy bills would have to rise by 125% — that is, more than double — before average consumers feel that they would have to make some changes in their day-to-day lives because of home energy costs.

Thus, this most recent value marks the second quarter of a return to the long-term average after seeing a gain in the index — indicating even more positive feelings about the affordability of home energy — over the last three quarters of 2017. In contrast, consumers are feeling progressively less comfortable with what they have to pay to fuel their cars (see the Gasoline Affordability write-up for more information).

Although U.S. consumers may use different forms of energy in their homes depending on where they live, essentially everyone uses electricity, and natural gas is used in just over two-thirds of homes. Although the Energy Information Administration (EIA) does not report monthly estimates of home energy costs, it does report monthly energy prices. This next chart shows recent trends in national average residential electricity (orange curve) and natural gas (blue curve) prices. Although we didn’t start the U-M Energy Survey until fall 2013, the graph starts in the year 2000 to show some historical context, notably the very high natural gas prices experienced in the mid-to-late 2000s before the fracking boom lowered the price of that fuel. 

Electricity prices vary seasonally, peaking in the summer months and typically seeing an annual low in January. So this chart emphasizes the 12-month running average while also showing the seasonal ups and downs that impact consumers’ power bills (unless one is on a payment plan that evens out the billing, as some utilities offer). When we started the Energy Survey in fall 2013, the average residential electricity price for the year ending that October was 12.1 cents per kilowatt-hour (¢/kWh). EIA’s latest published data give a national average electricity price of 12.9 ¢/kWh in February 2018, prior to our most recent spring survey in April. Thus, over the past four and a half years, consumers have seen only slightly higher electricity prices. Moreover, the small increase that occurred was quite gradual, especially compared to the seasonal variation.

We calculate the affordability index by comparing the energy costs that consumers say they would find to be unaffordable to the costs — in this case, their monthly home energy bills — they experience when each quarterly survey sample 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.

Consumer views about the affordability of energy do vary with household income, as described in an earlier post that examined demographic factors on the topic.

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.

Carbon taxes and the affordability of gasoline

One of the options on the table as policymakers grapple with climate disruption is a carbon tax. Many economists favor such an approach, which would motivate businesses and consumers to make choices that progressively lower the net emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases that cause global warming. But how would Americans feel about a policy that, among other effects, will raise the price of gasoline?

The U-M Energy Survey routinely asks consumers how much they feel they can afford to pay before their costs, for both home energy and gasoline, become so high that they would have to make changes in their daily lives. The resulting answers about consumers’ thresholds for “pain at the pump” enable us to assess how a carbon tax would affect American consumers’ feelings about the affordability of gasoline.

This report describes the findings, focusing on the carbon tax level of $40 per ton of CO2 that has been proposed by the Climate Leadership Council. The analysis also examines the effect of lower and higher carbon taxes, of $10 and $100 per ton, respectively, as well as how such taxes would affect different groups of consumers by income.

It turns out that with a $40 per ton carbon tax — which translates to an added 36¢ per gallon at the pump, gasoline would still be considered affordable by over 90% of Americans. That finding is based on survey responses relative to an average base gasoline price of $2.80 per gallon, which such a carbon tax would bump up to $3.16 per gallon.

Over the nearly four years of U-M Energy Survey data analyzed to date, the gasoline price that consumers say they would find unaffordable has generally been more than $5 per gallon. So that leaves a good bit of leeway between recent prices and the price levels likely to result from low to moderate levels of a carbon tax.

Looking more closely at the data, however, reveals how views on fuel affordability vary by household income. A $40 per ton carbon tax would push 14% of low-income consumers into the zone where they feel that they would need to make changes in how they travel. However, such a tax would just put 7% of middle-income and only 4% of high-income consumers into a situation where, according to their survey responses, they would feel that gasoline becomes costly enough for them to change how they get around.

For further details, download our full report on Carbon Taxes and the Affordability of Gasoline

 

A carbon tax would not cause too much grief at the gas pump

ANN ARBOR — A new report from the University of Michigan Energy Survey offers insight into how American consumers would react to a carbon tax. A tax of $40 per ton of carbon — which adds 36¢ per gallon to the price of gasoline — still leaves more than 90% of U.S. consumers inside their comfort zones for fuel prices and travel choices. But the report, based on asking consumers how much they feel they can afford to pay for fuel, also finds that much greater pressure would be felt by consumers in the lower third of the distribution by household income.

Launched in fall 2013 when fuel prices were much higher than they are now, the U-M Energy Survey polls a nationally representative sample of Americans about their views on the affordability, reliability and environmental impact of energy. These energy-related questions are appended four times a year to the University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the in-depth telephone interviews that are the source of the well-known Index of Consumer Sentiment.

Interviewers ask consumers how much the price of gasoline would have to rise before it would cause them to change how they get around. Researchers compare those responses to actual gasoline prices and to consumers’ self-reported incomes as also tallied by the surveys.

“On average, consumers said that gasoline would have to be over $5.00 per gallon before they would consider it unaffordable,” says John DeCicco, the survey director and a research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute. “So there is a good bit of leeway for a carbon tax to be added before most Americans would experience serious pain at the pump.”

Earlier this year, a group of Republican elders and business leaders formed the Climate Leadership Council to advance a carbon tax, which would place a levy on energy sources in proportion to how much carbon dioxide (CO2) they emit, as a conservative solution to global warming. Their proposal calls for taxing carbon at $40 per ton while rebating revenues back to consumers through dividends and reducing the regulations imposed on business.

Relative to a base level of $2.80 per gallon, that would push the pump price up to $3.16 per gallon. The number of Americans who would then find fuel to be unaffordable would rise from 2% to 7.5%, still keeping over 90% of consumers below their thresholds for pain at the pump.

“However, these average findings mask significant differences in consumer views,” DeCicco points out. “We found a wide range of answers to our question about the price of gasoline.”

The new report takes a close look at the responses of consumers from across the spectrum. Some consumers already feel that gasoline is unaffordable at $2.80 per gallon, the average price over the nearly four years since the survey was launched. On the other hand, every survey sample found some consumers who replied that gasoline would have to exceed $10, $20 and even in some cases over $50 per gallon before it would prod them to make significant changes in how they get around.

Because consumers’ views of affordability depend on their income, the U-M analysis grouped survey respondents into thirds (terciles) — low, middle and high — according to self-reported income.

“A carbon tax of $40 per ton would push 14% of low-income consumers to where they feel they would have to significantly change their travel choices,” DeCicco noted. “In contrast, 7% of middle-income and only 4% of high-income consumers would find themselves in that situation.”

The study also examined lower and higher taxes of $10 and $100 per ton of carbon, implying 9¢ and 89¢ more per gallon, respectively. The $10 tax would have little effect. But at $100 per ton — a level that some economists say is needed to deeply cut carbon — 21% of low-income consumers would feel that gasoline is unaffordable.

Many carbon tax proposals, including the one from the Climate Leadership Council, include dividends for consumers. But policymakers can find many ways to use new tax revenues. The survey findings highlight how targeting rebates for low-income households would help the Americans who most feel that higher pump prices will impact their daily lives.

Regarding the unique approach taken by the U-M Energy Survey, “We assess each individual’s personal feelings about the price of fuel based on their own needs and experience,” DeCicco explains. “Moreover, we do so independently of the reason for a price change, so that we avoid pushing  people’s buttons, so to speak, by framing the survey in terms of taxes, climate action or other potentially volatile policy issues.”

For more on these findings, see https://www.umenergysurvey.com/carbon-tax-how-much-too-much/ and download the full report, “Carbon Taxes and the Affordability of Gasoline,” at http://www.umenergysurvey.com/assets/C-taxG-aff_12Sep2017.pdf

The Energy Survey is a quarterly rider on the University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, which can be accessed at http://www.sca.isr.umich.edu/. For more information about the participating research units, visit the websites for the Energy Institute at http://energy.umich.edu/ and for the Institute for Social Research at http://home.isr.umich.edu/.

Contact:

Amy Mast, Energy Institute communications director, at amymast@umich.edu, 734-615-5678

John M. DeCicco, Ph.D., U-M Energy Survey director, at DeCicco@umich.edu, 734-764-6757

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Download this press release in PDF format here

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 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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