Taking America’s energy temperature

RUTGERS (US)—Of the estimated 1,000 energy-related public opinion polls conducted during the last 20 years, environmental policy expert Michael Greenberg says there are two basic types: polls that include energy questions among a range of societal issues and hypothesis-driven surveys that measure preferences and try to link them to underlying factors.

Greenberg, whose teaching and research interests at Rutgers include environmental planning and economic and environmental trade-offs, recently conducted his own survey. Findings were published in the journal Energy Policy.

He sought to learn energy source preferences (coal, dams/hydro, natural gas, nuclear, oil, solar, and wind) among those who lived near nuclear facilities and those who did not; preference variations among sites; and factors—such as risk perception, familiarity with nuclear facilities, trust of authority, and demographic characteristics—associated with their choices.

Greenberg’s random telephone survey covered 2,701 residents, including 2,101 living within 50 miles of 11 existing major nuclear power, waste management, or laboratory facilities. Among his findings:

  • More than 90 percent of respondents (nationally and site-specific) favored increased solar and wind power; 70 percent wanted greater reliance on hydroelectric sources.
  • More than 40 percent favored increases in nuclear energy, more than 50 percent in natural gas.
  • Less than one-third of those surveyed wanted more reliance on coal and oil, while more than 70 percent called for the decreased use of oil, and nearly 60 percent wanted to use less coal.

Respondents’ preferences near the nuclear sites appeared partly driven by their familiarity with local energy sources and local and personal economic benefits. For example, those near the Idaho National Laboratory clearly demonstrated the strongest support for nuclear power while residents near sites in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and in South Texas showed strong support for every energy source.

“Idaho has no coal plants supplying energy to residential customers, no electrical generation using oil and a limited amount of energy from natural gas,” Greenberg says. “While no nuclear power is generated in the state, it hosts a massive U.S. Department of Energy nuclear environmental management facility, and that was the first site to produce nuclear energy for local use.”

In contrast, the Oak Ridge and South Texas regions have coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear facilities—and the former has a major nuclear waste management facility, which has been a source of jobs for 50 years.

Greenberg grouped the seven energy sources into fossil fuels, renewables, and nuclear fuel to learn predictor characteristics of proponents and opponents of each. He found considerable differences. Several examples:

  • Nuclear fuel proponents were concerned about potential harm associated with coal and trusted authorities responsible for nuclear technology. They disproportionately were older white males, relatively well educated and affluent.
  • Fossil fuel proponents believed coal was not harmful, wanted energy policy to emphasize lowering consumer energy costs and did not identify with consumer activism.
  • Renewables proponents worried about coal and nuclear power, were highly educated and environmental supporters.

Greenberg also found a “white male effect”—almost 66 percent of white male respondents favored increased reliance on nuclear fuel compared to only 35 percent of other males and females—and an “age effect”—older respondents were more likely to support increasing reliance on coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear power.

As for policy implications, Greenberg says the overwhelming majority of Americans favor renewable energy sources and relatively few want more reliance on coal and oil. He also found that officials and the energy industry disproportionately can expect white males to support a “nuclear power renaissance” and a reduction in oil use.

Younger Americans, adds Greenberg, will respond to policy initiatives by government and business to commit to renewable energy.

The survey was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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