A new breed of energy-hungry consumers is emerging from the edge of darkened U.S. cities and demanding uninterrupted, cleaner power for computers, Web access, Internet networked appliances, home theaters and other electricty-powered technology used in the home. Faced with the prospect of forced blackouts and soaring utility bills, these income-rich, but energy-poor consumers don't mind footing the bill to generate their own power and to sustain their lifestyles, In the process, they may be spurring a new market for personal power generation technology.
"These people are 'affluent survivalists'. They have money, a pool, a home theater and they definitely have a lot of computers around the house. They own a number of acres, they live away from the cities and they don't like utilities." said Dick Claeys, a spokesman for North Salem, NY-based RKS Research & Consulting.
Nearly a third -- 31 percent -- of consumers earning $50,000 or more surveyed by RKS expressed interest in depending less on utility companies and more on personally-financed energy supplies. That's up from 27 percent in 1999 and 24 percent in 1998, said Claeys.
Twenty percent of the 31 percent would prefer completely pulling the plug on utility companies and generate their own power, while another 20 percent said they only want to supply supplemental juice. The remainder had no opinion about the shift of power.
RKS interviewed 838 heads of households across the nation between July and September 2000 and also found that 9 percent of the affluent households already own or lease some kind of power generator for their primary home and 16 percent of them have back-up generators for their second home. Who wants to take a vacation in the dark or spend down time getting rid of that flashing "12:00" on the VCR?
Another 40 percent are considering purchasing a generator, while eight in ten already own a battery-powered uninterruptible power supply system or surge protectors, according to the RKS findings.
RKS also found a growing demand for cleaner energy. Three quarters of the affluent households surveyed advocate the use of renewable energy resources to produce electricity. And six in ten favor self-generated clean power, compared to only a 20 percent who supported building new central power plants.
"The highest score was for solar panels. After that came fuel cells and a then a third is the micro-turbine the size of a dishwasher powered by natural gas or oil," Claeys said.
"These people tend to have strong opinions about renewable energy and say the best way for them to meet their needs is to have their own power," he added.
Not only Californians were among the more than half the surveyed respondents who reported that their power usage has increased over the past five years. Among households with multiple computers, the score rises to 59 percent. On average, high-income households recall three electrical interruptions of five minutes or more over the past year, plus six power fluctuations that required resetting home appliances and equipment.
California's New Year ushered in rolling blackouts, blackout alerts and skyrocketing energy costs, as the state's two largest utility companies face financial blackouts. Northern California has been hardest hit with 15 consecutive days of "Stage 3" alerts for rolling black outs after the state's energy deregulation spawned power shortages exacerbated by colder than normal weather, growing population and industry demand, and more than the usual number of power plants shut down for maintenance.
A half dozen investigations are examining California's deregulation woes, but as many as 25 other states may face similar problems as they gear up for tearing down utility monopolies.
The federal Department of Energy's forecast for a 40 percent rise in natural gas prices and a 29 percent hike in fuel oil costs. Conservation demands are part of the solution, but many consumers have developed lifestyles hooked on energy-hungry technology. Their growing energy needs now finds them ready to dig deep, bypass the power brokers and remain connected -- 24-7-365.
More than six in 10 homes now include at least one computer, and three quarters of these homes are connected to the Internet, according to another RKS survey.Nearly one in five American homes -- 19 percent -- have more than one computer, and one in 10 of these households are interested in a home power network that would link multiple computers and peripheral devices including appliances, RKS says.
While upscale customers give their utilities satisfactory scores for responsiveness and value, support is thin. Three quarters of those surveyed said it doesn't matter who supplies the power, as long as the lights stay on.
"Now that events in California confirm the weakness of the power grid, we may have arrived at the defining moment that accelerates awareness and receptivity to new technologies that eliminate customer dependence on time-honored poles and wires," said David J. Reichman, RKS president.