U.S. consumers appear increasingly sophisticated in their consumption of energy, and they have emerged as an important force in expanding home energy efficiency and distributed power generation, according to two new reports from Deloitte.
While part of this movement may be based on increasing awareness of sustainable energy, the reports, unveiled yesterday at the 2014 Deloitte Energy Conference, indicate that the public is responding to the improving economics of renewables and energy efficiency as well.
"We're seeing consumers transform from reactive to resourceful," said Greg Aliff, vice chairman and senior partner for energy and resources at Deloitte. While consumers generally became more conscientious of their energy use during the recent economic recession, he said, many have carried those habits forward even as the economy has improved.
And as they begin to grow more comfortable with their economic situation, some consumers are moving beyond the "low-hanging fruit" of personal conservation -- actions like turning off lights or regulating temperature controls -- to take more proactive control of their energy management.
This means an increasing number are considering replacing old, inefficient appliances or renovating homes to better regulate temperatures, Aliff said.
Growth: the 'big story' of 2013
One illustration of the public's more proactive posture is in residential solar. Home solar installations boomed in 2013, thanks to a combination of falling costs, new financing options and bottom-up movement among consumers to increase self-reliance and embrace green energy.
"It's interesting to note that in the case of distributed generation, solar isn't driven by [renewable portfolio standards]," said Marlene Motyka, principal for transacting and business analytics at Deloitte. "As we've seen from our surveys, this is driven by interest from consumers and businesses."
Solar enjoyed a strong year overall in 2013, seeing levels of deployment 41 percent above those of 2012. While growth among utilities and power providers grew steadily, it was in distributed generation -- in residential and small-business customers -- that solar really took off.
While residential solar in the past tended to concentrate in wealthy communities -- prompting criticism at moments that incentives for solar disproportionately benefited the rich -- new solar growth has increasingly occurred in middle-income neighborhoods, among families making between $40,000 and $90,000 per year, according to Deloitte.
"It seems the massive improvements in solar cost parity ... are happening well ahead of schedule," notes one of the reports. "This is boosting adoption of solar technologies not only in the utility arena but also in residential, commercial and industrial segments."
"This growth, in our opinion, was the big story of 2013," it notes.
Generation Y leads the charge
According to the second report, "Informed and In Charge," which drew its data from more than 1,500 demographically balanced online interviews, as many as three-quarters of the country's consumers are committed to learning about alternative energy sources, with 58 percent indicating they have a desire to increase their use of renewables.
"During the recession it was clear consumers were cutting back on energy consumption to save money," Aliff said. "But this behavior has carried on. ... Now they view this as not a sacrifice but the right thing to do."
He added that eight in 10 of the respondents said they had received energy-saving tips from electricity suppliers and through word of mouth, while the report revealed that 84 percent of consumers believe they have become a "more resourceful person" and two-thirds say their families are "doing everything they can" to further cut costs.
"Consumers are looking to purchase more efficient appliances and installation," Aliff said.
In addition to looking to wind and solar power, 85 percent of the respondents said they turn off lights when not in the room, and 46 percent indicated they are replacing inefficient bulbs with energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs.
But, as the report revealed, it's the youth -- or Generation Y -- that is most keen to get "even smarter" about energy technology, with about one-third of them saying they "definitely/probably" will buy a smart energy application, which is up from 28 percent in 2011.
"Consumer groups who are communicating through connected devices and sharing perspectives and opinions influence each other," Aliff said. "And energy companies that figure out how to analyze behavioral connectivity will be winners in the future."