Recent numbers from two nationally-recognized polling agencies offer an instructive look into how Americans view electricity generation sources.
Findings from Gallup and Zogby Analytics concur – the public increasingly thinks the nation's future is in renewables and energy efficiency, while they are losing confidence in nuclear and coal. Natural gas, meanwhile, appears to be in good standing as well, save for apprehensions surrounding fracking.
In late January of this year, Zogby asked 1,400 U.S. homeowners to pick the three energy sources most important to the U.S. future. 50% chose solar and 42% picked wind, according to the firm's report "U.S. Homeowners on Clean Energy: A National Survey." The poll was commissioned by Clean Edge, Inc. and SolarCity, two leading renewables developers.
Natural gas was picked by 33% and energy efficiency by 25%. Nuclear came in at 14% and coal was the choice of only 8%. Solar led with nearly every demographic: Republicans, Democrats, Independents, conservatives, liberals, city and rural dwellers, youth, and the elderly.
Equally indicative of an ongoing shift, the 11-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for solar has been 52% and, representing the broader clean energy market for consumers, the CAGR for LEED-certified projects has been 56%. This may suggest that American consumers are beginning to vote with their wallets for cleaner energy and efficiency.
“In 2014, over half of all new U.S. electricity generation came from wind and solar,” said Clean Edge Managing Director Ron Pernick. “Coal is on its descent. Natural gas is a significant contributor. This research shows Americans see that and are supportive of the shift that is in play.”
Gallup found, in a broader-based poll from early March, that only 51% of Americans presently favor nuclear, down from its 62% peak in 2010.
Support for "more emphasis" on natural gas production dropped 10 points since 2013, to 55%, and for oil dropped 5 points to 41%. But, Gallup reported, “there has been no meaningful change in support for expanding solar power or wind as part of a national energy strategy.”
“This corresponds to other research we’ve seen on how consumers view solar,” said National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association Sr. Communications Manager Tracy Warren. “It isn’t surprising that consumers are looking at solar and asking if it can help them save money.”
The generational shift
Findings in the polls show a strong preference for a future based on renewable energy generation, but they also raise some doubts about the role of natural gas.
Most of the poll participants expect the trends of rising electricity rates and falling installed solar costs to continue. Zogby found that nearly two-thirds (64%) of respondents said “saving on monthly electrical bills” was the most important factor in the decision to go solar. Because solar can be expected to provide increasing savings, it can also be expected to be more homeowners' choice.
Similarly predictive was the Zogby finding that “support for natural gas and nuclear decline significantly with younger respondents.” The demographic trend is away from traditional resources. While 43% of those over 70 support natural gas, only 27% of those from 18 to 24 support it. Nuclear was supported by 24% of those over 70 but only 8% of those between 25 and 34 and just 1% for those between 18 and 24.
Gallup found that while only 35% of Americans want more emphasis on nuclear and 33% want less, 79% of Americans want more emphasis on solar and 70% want more emphasis on wind. A majority want more emphasis on natural gas but it is down from 2013’s support.
“This could be indicative of the divisive nature of fracking,” Gallup suggested.
The 11-year CAGR rates for solar and LEED-certified buildings were dwarfed, according to the Zogby report, by the 145% CAGR for LED lights from 2009 to 2013, and the 309% CAGR for electric vehicles from 2010-2013. This is more evidence of where the trends will lead.
A more subtle predictor was in the fact that the biggest support of solar’s importance for the future came from the South, where there has not yet been much solar development and the economics are not as strong.
“People are aware of sunshine, insolation, as a resource and they understand that it is something they can use to their benefit,” explained SolarCity Communications Vice President Jonathan Bass. “The lack of adoption is because solar is not really available to them. Three of the six states that don’t have net metering are in the Deep South. But there is a lot of support because it is a natural resource and an advantage they have over other parts of the country.”
The implication is the South wants solar to be available and will turn to it when it is.
“Saving money,” Zogby found, was the primary influence in the decision of 82% of homeowners “to purchase clean energy products and services.” Only 34% chose “reducing my environmental impact.”
While 52% of homeowners said they consider the social and environmental impacts of their investments, 74% said the investment is more attractive if there is a “higher return than other options.” Only 22% would make the environmentally-conscious investment if it has a “slightly lower return than other options.”
“It was not surprising to see economics are ahead of environmental considerations,” Warren said. “We saw the same thing. The consumer’s first concern is how it will affect the bill. That is the consumer’s bottom line.”
Over the coming year, the Zogby poll found, homeowners clean-energy purchases will be those that combine the economic considerations of savings and relatively low upfront costs, with 27% planning to buy LED light bulbs, 12% planning a smart thermostat purchase, and 9% planning to buy an Energy Star-rated hot water heaters.
“One of the biggest obstacles to energy efficiency is the upfront investment it often requires,” Warren agreed. “Co-ops offer all kinds of ways to help their members save on things like smart thermostats and LED light bulbs.”
Midwest Energy’s How$mart program, she noted, provides on-bill financing of energy efficiency improvements such as insulation, air sealing, new heating and cooling systems, and commercial lighting. It has been adopted by five co-ops in Kentucky.
If homeowners choose an investment with social and environmental benefits, 54% want it to have a higher return than a savings or CD account, 12% want it to provide U.S. job growth, and only 11% require that it help drive solar or sustainability.
The politics and opportunity for utilities
Gallup found strong support for oil, natural gas, wind, and solar among Republicans and strong support for wind and solar from Democrats.
Zogby similarly found that 74% of homeowners favor continuing federal tax incentives for solar and wind, including 82% of Democrats, 67% of Republicans, and 72% of Independents.
“There’s a misconception that the nation is divided on its attitudes toward clean energy,” Pernick said. “There is broad support for renewables across the political spectrum.”
Because federal tax incentives for wind and solar have struggled for support in the current Congress, Pernick said, “we believe there is a disconnect between Congress and these constituencies. But we don’t believe there is that disconnect in a lot the cities and in a lot of the states.”
Zogby also found that 66% of Republicans and 59% of Democrats “oppose any utility effort to impose a rooftop solar fee for panels that are connected to the grid.” Only 24% support utility fees on solar. By 53% to 26%, homeowners see an extra utility fee for connecting rooftop systems to the grid as a tax on solar.
“The strongest opposition is among Republicans and among rural dwellers,” Bass said. This difference between homeowners and political leaders suggests “there may be a difference between what constituents support and what big donors support. These shouldn’t be partisan issues but there is a lot of rhetoric and funding flowing in to support anti-renewable agendas.”
“There are a lot of changes happening. If we get to where there is residential energy storage everything is going to be very different,” Warren said. “Utilities are looking at how to balance the needs of their members in an energy landscape that looks very different than it does now.”
“The broad support for solar should be instructive,” Bass said. “Customers want choice. Utilities can continue to try to block individuals’ access to solar along regulatory lines. Or they can start to work with solar developers to incorporate solar into their business models.”