I’ve been working on a response to Christine Harbin’s op-ed on Missouri’s green energy sales tax holiday over at the Show-Me Institute. This paragraph particularly stood out to me:
…Acquiring a more fuel-efficient new appliance could also encourage the purchaser to wash dishes and laundry more frequently than before, which means that the overall decrease in energy usage may be much smaller than anticipated — or could even increase. If usage does drop as a result of sanctioned purchases, however, the reduction in overall Missouri energy usage will still be minimal at best unless every Missouri resident purchases a new appliance during the week that rebates are offered.
The assertion that the consumers might respond to increased energy efficiency of course is not a new one, and there is some empirical backing for that claim. This study conducted with Opower suggests that political affiliation may play a role in how consumers respond to these programs. Specifically, conservatives seem to be the single group that increases their energy consumption in spite of (or maybe to spite) efforts to increase the conservation of energy:
In a study evaluating the program’s effectiveness, Opower researchers compared power use before and after the HER reports began arriving, and further compared this change with a group of control households that never received the reports. On average, the HER households reduced their consumption in the months that followed by a little less than 2 percent. Not bad, but probably not enough to save the planet.
Working with the same utility as Opower, Costa and Kahn matched up information on the households in the pilot study to data on political affiliations and a database of past charitable giving to environmental organizations. The economists found that the 2 percent average decline in energy use obscured significant differences in the responsiveness of different types of households to the conservation message. Registered Democrats who give to environmental organizations and live near other liberals reduced their consumption by 3 percent. For liberals who started out as heavier-than-average consumers, the reduction was almost 6 percent. Republicans who live in conservative neighborhoods (and hence had no neighborly pressure to conserve) and had no record of giving to environmental organizations actually increased their consumption by 1 percent.
Why would some energy-conscious Republicans all of a sudden become power hogs? One explanation is that many conservatives don’t believe that burning energy harms the planet, so when they learn that they’re better than average, they become less vigilant about turning the lights off. That is, they’re simply moving closer to what they now know is the norm (what psychologists call the boomerang effect). Costa and Kahn also look for guidance from the patron saint of right-wing fundamentalists, Rush Limbaugh, who encouraged his listeners to turn on all their lights during Earth Hour. Costa and Kahn suggest that ardently right-wing electricity customers might respond to paternalistic nudges by burning more energy, just to thumb their noses at Big Brother.