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“Everyone has a peer in the low user tier”: the diversity of low residential energy users


Low residential energy use is typically associated with undesirable characteristics, such as poverty, thermal discomfort, or small dwelling size. The association of low energy use with deprivation has been an obstacle to promoting more aggressive goals for reduction of residential use. However, there is little research on the composition of the low user population. We investigated the demographics, behavior, and satisfaction of the lowest 10% of electricity consumers in Sacramento, CA, to see what attributes best correlated with low use. California, like many other regions, has GHG emissions goals requiring drastic reductions in residential consumption. Households in Sacramento’s lowest decile of electricity consumption already live at electricity consumption levels consistent with the goals for 2050. Our investigation of 700 of these households found that diversity of low users with regard to age, income, education, appliance ownership, and dwelling characteristics is similar to that of the general population. Low-use households tend to be smaller, but not enough to explain the entirety of low usage. Surveys and interviews revealed that those in the lowest 10% typically pursued low consumption deliberately and enthusiastically and were aware of their status as low users. Conversations about energy conserving strategies were embedded in their social lives. They employed diverse and creative strategies to maintain thermal comfort without excess energy use, often exceeding expert recommendations. Finally, the distribution of self-reported quality of life was no different from that of the general population living at much higher consumption levels. Overall, the key determinants of low use were a positive engagement with improvisation and experimentation, and the salience of energy in personal or social life. The population of low users should be treated as a valuable source of peer advice and lifestyle modeling.

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