There is not really any need to make the Super Bowl more popular than it already is.
Nonetheless, there’s a surprisingly good thing about it that you may not have heard of before — namely, that this event has actually been documented to save energy on a large scale. And this isn’t just a curiosity or statistical quirk. There’s a bigger lesson here about a crucial but often overlooked factor involved in energy use — how much time we spend with other people, rather than alone in our homes.
The research on the Super Bowl’s energy savings was conducted by Outlier, a blog published by Opower, a company that works with utilities to help them better connect with their customers and reduce people’s energy use. Opower studied the 2012 Super Bowl, using data from 145,000 households, and reported that “when the game kicks off, electricity use plummets.”
More specifically, versus a typical Sunday afternoon/evening in the winter, home power usage was 5 percent lower during the Super Bowl, with big consequences for overall energy use:
Why does this happen? Opower hypothesized two effects. First, they reasoned that during the Super Bowl, people are using one significant energy consuming appliance — that big, big flatscreen TV — but pretty much no others. They’re more or less transfixed.
But the bigger and more intriguing reason is that people are also together:
Just as carpooling reduces transportation energy use, gathering together to watch televised sports—let’s call it “TV-Pooling”—decreases home electricity use. Twenty people watching one large TV at a friend’s house requires much less energy than 20 people watching 20 TVs in their individual homes.
In fairness, Opower’s analysis only covered electricity usage, not another major energy expenditure — driving miles. If people are driving long distances to get to friends’ houses to watch the Super Bowl, then a lot of this could potentially be offset. On the other hand, if they’re walking to friends’ places, or carpooling, or using public transit, it’s less of a problem.
Opower’s observation about how communal activities drive energy savings fits in a much broader context. For instance, last month I wrote about how a lot of activities that tend to increase happiness and a personal sense of well being — sleeping more, volunteering, exercising, spending time with friends, engaging in spiritual activities — are also among the least energy intensive (provided, once again, that they are decoupled from driving long distances).
Here’s a figure from University of California-Berkeley Ph.D. candidate Joseph Kantenbacher, upon which this analysis rests, showing how much energy (per hour) various leisure activities tend to take up:
On this chart, the “Super Bowl effect” would probably fall under the category of “socializing.” And when you shift huge parts of America into that category for several hours, it’s not surprising that energy use drops.
So, in sum: This Sunday, go watch the Super Bowl — but go somewhere where you don’t have to drive, and where there are a lot of people.
Just make sure — needless to say — that they’re not fans of the other team.