May 22, 2014

What Data Can And Can’t Tell Us About Our Winter Energy Consumption

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Energy Information Administration

It was a bad winter, full of polar vortices and an endless march of blizzards.

And according to data from the Energy Information Administration, Americans spent more on heat this winter than last winter: $14.0 billion more, a 4.4% jump.


 Here’s what this data tells us:

  • As consumers, we spent more on energy as a whole this winter than last.
  • We spent a little less (3%) on transportation.
  • We spent 10% more on electricity.
  • We spent 16% more on natural gas.
  • We spent about the same fraction of our disposable incomes on energy.

Here’s what this data doesn’t tell us:

  • Did we actually use MORE energy? (The increase in spending could simply reflect an increase in cost.)
  • Did the cost for energy – natural gas, electricity, petroleum – go up since last winter?
  • Do we tend to use more energy when weather is more severe?

Here are some questions this data raises:

  • How much do energy prices change year to year?
  • How has our energy consumption changed in the long term?
  • What factors, if any, influence our energy use and spending the most: weather, energy prices, salaries, cost of other living expenses?

Answering questions with data is a process of triangulation.

For example, we can look at natural gas prices from the EIA and see that they were 63% higher in January 2014 than January 2013:


Perhaps – when it comes to natural gas, at least – we’re spending more because prices are higher. We can confirm this by looking at natural gas consumption data, which shows:

  • total natural gas consumption went up 4% from January 2013 to January 2014,
  • natural gas for electricity generation went up 7%.

Prices grew faster than consumption.

At Inside Energy, we’re digging into these issues and taking a data-driven approach to figuring out how energy intersects with your life. A keen awareness of what data can and can’t do is the most important skill a data journalist needs.

For the Big Bang Data exhibit, Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona interviewed data professionals about the power and limitations of their medium:

This EIA data – and any data – provides insight, but also has limitations. As we provide powerful reporting on what powers you, we won’t just be using data, we’ll be interrogating it.