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Powering Down


Utilities fear weak demand for electricity a sign of fundamental change in consumption.


With each passing day, it becomes clearer this is no ordinary economic downturn.

Data show Americans aren't just cutting back in traditional ways: Paring non-essential purchases and getting by with fewer luxuries. Rather, there are fundamental shifts going on in the way we live.

These emerging trends evidence a shift not just in purchasing habits, but in lifestyle.

According to the Wall Street Journal, businesses and households alike are using less energy. Specifically, large utility companies like Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy (XEL), Charlotte's Duke Energy (DUK) and American Electric Power (AEP) in Ohio are seeing steeper drops in electricity consumption than in previous downturns.

To be sure, energy demand weakens as the economy slows. Consumers buy fewer electronic gadgets, drive less and generally use less stuff that needs to be turned on.

This time, however, executives are worried fundamental behaviors are changing. Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, told the Journal consumption is falling even in places where prices are stagnant. "Something fundamental is going on."

Xcel CEO Dick Kelly said for "the first time in 40 years [he's] seen a decline in sales" to homes.

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If the pattern persists, it could cause utilities to drastically change their business model. Typically, purveyors of power count on small, but consistent growth in energy demand. They build this assumption into their business models, which plays an integral role in expansion plans and breaking ground on new plants. Coupled with the rising cost of capital resulting from the credit crisis, this means Americans are likely to see higher energy prices in the future.

And while the data is far from conclusive, it could be an early sign that we are (begrudgingly) embracing the concept that less is, actually, more.

Minyanville's Kevin Depew and others have been cataloguing this shift in consumer behavior, as broad deflation grips society. More than just lower prices, deflation is taking hold in all aspects of our lives. It's a slow process, to be sure, but one that is undeniably gaining momentum as social mood darkens and the public rejects consumerism.

Despite lower gas prices, Americans are still driving less. Ever hungry for bigger offerings from McDonald's (MCD) and Burger King (BKC), restaurants are increasingly being forced to inform their customers just how bad an idea it is to eat a Triple Whopper with cheese. Someday, the lesson may actually stick.

Confucius once said a journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step. Turning off the lights when you leave a room may be that first step. Watching less television may be the second. Maybe, just maybe, spending less time on Facebook could be that third step that sets the whole thing running down hill.

Hey, a guy can dream right?

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