The University of Texas at Austin
  • Poll: Americans aren’t optimistic about energy

    By Steve Brooks
    Published: Oct. 20, 2011

    Energy — it’s one of those subjects most Americans try not to think about. As long as it’s cheap and easy to fill our tanks and cool our houses, we don’t pay much attention to where energy comes from or how it gets to us.

    Maybe that’s why energy policymakers know so little about what Americans think about energy. They hear the opinions of scientists, energy companies and environmental groups. But there’s a shortage of data on the attitudes of consumers — the people who actually use energy and who determine whether policies succeed or fail.

    Graph expressing energy perceptions: right versus wrong direction

    So says Wayne Hoyer, marketing department chair at the McCombs School of Business. When Hoyer looked at existing consumer polls on energy, he saw that they fell into two classes: one-off surveys that gave no sense of how or why attitudes changed over time or surveys sponsored by groups with obvious agendas, such as the Edison Electric Institute or the American Petroleum Institute.

    “That creates an opportunity for us,” says Hoyer. On Oct. 19, he and other University of Texas at Austin faculty members unveiled the Energy Poll, developed by the Energy Management and Innovation Center (EMIC) at McCombs. According to Hoyer, the Energy Poll is the first ongoing and nonpartisan measure of how Americans think and behave about energy.

    The poll was first suggested by market researcher Peter Zandan, a Texas alumnus who serves on the McCombs School advisory board. The survey questions have been vetted by groups on all sides of energy issues, from energy companies and public officials to academics and environmental groups. “A lot of eyeballs looked at this,” says Hoyer. “It’s important that we have no agenda.”

    Graph expressing energy perceptions: Who is doing a good job on energy?

    While there’s no agenda regarding the results, the Energy Poll does fit the agenda for McCombs itself.

    “The Energy Poll is an instrumental part of our strategy to make McCombs known for energy management and innovation,” McCombs School Dean Tom Gilligan says. “To complement our research and teaching, we wanted to develop a tool to help the world understand how consumers feel about energy security, availability and prices.”

    Consumers’ Energy ‘Angst’

    Judging by the first poll, consumers aren’t feeling optimistic. The 20-minute survey, taken by 3,406 Americans Sept. 14-25, found what Gilligan calls “a general level of angst and insecurity”:

    • In dealing with energy issues, 43 percent feel the nation is heading in the wrong direction. Only 14 percent say it’s headed in the right direction.
    • In 12 months, 69 percent expect to spend more of their household budgets on energy.
    • In 25 years, 41 percent expect our energy situation to be worse than today — almost double the 23 percent who expect to be better off.

    Fueling consumers’ pessimism is a view that the biggest players in energy policy aren’t playing well. Those surveyed rank the U.S. Congress at the very bottom, with 8 percent satisfied and 71 percent dissatisfied. Local and state governments don’t rate much better.


    • Forty-three percent feel the nation is heading in the wrong direction on energy issues, and 41 percent expect our energy situation to be worse in 25 years.
    • Consumers blame the government and energy producers for high energy prices.
    • Consumers do trust engineers and scientists for energy information, as well as research institutes, colleges and universities.

    Traditional energy producers also take a beating. Only 14 percent of respondents are satisfied with energy financiers and only 16 percent with oil and gas companies. Consumers tend to blame those firms for high energy prices, saying prices have more to do with the pricing power of energy companies than with supply and demand.

    Which players get the largest votes of public confidence? Engineers and scientists, with a 41 percent satisfaction rating. Wind and solar companies also get thumbs up, along with research institutes, colleges and universities.

    “It’s good news for us,” says Hoyer. “Our goal is to be a source of news and information about energy.”

    The public, it appears, is hungry for that information. When asked about their level of energy knowledge, 34 percent confess to not being knowledgeable, versus 24 percent who consider themselves knowledgeable. Fully 80 percent want to know more about how to reduce their energy use. A majority also wants to learn more about global and national issues, like consumption of foreign oil, energy efficiency and renewable energy.

    Respondents aren’t just looking for information. Many intend to act on it. In the next five years, 38 percent are likely to use “smart meters,” 30 percent to own a hybrid vehicle and 21 percent to put solar panels on their roofs.

    Economic Concerns Trump Environmental Concerns

    A lesser concern, at least for the time being, is the environmental impact of energy policies. When asked whether they place a higher priority on economic growth or on avoiding harm to the environment, 37 percent choose economic growth, while 33 percent choose the environment.

    Given the state of the economy, suggests Gilligan, that’s a surprisingly strong showing for environmental concerns. “It may suggest that when the economy recovers, people will have a much stronger demand for environmental protection again,” he says. “We’ll have the perfect instrument for trying to deduce that effect.”

    Indeed, mapping how attitudes change over time is part of EMIC’s vision for the poll. It plans to repeat the survey every six months, with most questions remaining the same. It will use some of the answers to generate an “energy sentiment index” — a single number to sum up consumer confidence about energy, much as the University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index captures confidence in the overall economy.

    The results of the first survey, says Raymond Orbach, director of UT’s Energy Institute, highlight the pitfalls in keeping the public’s confidence. As former undersecretary for science of the U.S. Department of Energy, he says, “I was stunned by the fact that dissatisfaction with state and federal governments, including the Department of Energy, was more than 50 percent.”

    That’s just one of many lessons the poll will provide, says Gilligan. “We’re trying to build a data source in a credible and persistent way. Twice yearly, on a recurring basis, we’ll develop a longitudinal database to study how attitudes change. We hope it will be used by anybody involved in management or in energy policy in the energy sector.”

    To view more graphs, visit the original Energy Poll story on the Texas Enterprise website.

    • Quote 2
      Ralph Hansen said on Oct. 30, 2011 at 5:51 p.m.
      The public as well as many others do not understand that wealth is only created through the expenditure of energy. Since the 90's this country as well as the rest of the western world has not increased the energy available per Capita. Without any increase in energy the living standard has become static. With the present policies that exist it is improbable that the situation will materially change within the next couple of decades. The Americal public as well as many countries expended much of their accumulated wealth during the last 20 years. It is highly unlikely that now anyone will be happy with the status quo as we have become such a consumption driven society. Once it becomes understood that our basis of wealth in the level of energy consumption, than and only than will it become possible to develop policies that address the situation. It may be that the environmental concerns that many people have will have to be modified to allow the economy to grow again. Everything needs to be placed on the table including a discussion about our standard of living. Even if a course of action is determined it will be decades before it can be fully impliminated. The sad truth is that the green movement has promised answers to our energy concerns that fall far short of providing a solution. It is like a using a tea cup to bail out an olympic swimming pool. The only real answer to our energy problem is a source or sources that would add 40% to our total amount of production within 40 years. After that period of time the growth must continue for our standard of living to continue to grow. The above discussion only deals with the western world. For the rest of the world to have any hope to catch up with us they need to increase their energy production two to three fold. The scope of the overall problem is truly staggering. I see nothing being done to address a problem of this magnitude.
    • Quote 2
      Christian D said on Oct. 28, 2011 at 10:40 a.m.
      Consider giving more information on where the poll was taken. Perhaps restricting the polling to different geographic areas and revealing those in your article will give insight into how perspectives vary from region to region.
    • Quote 2
      Becky Engle said on Oct. 27, 2011 at 11:15 a.m.
      First educate the public about how energy prices are set (hint - it's not the President) and then do another study and ask how many people are willing to give up their SUVs, pick-up trucks and other large vehicles or pay more for a house that uses solar or geothermal for heating/air conditioning ( order to do something about energy usage.
    • Quote 2
      Mark W. Odom said on Oct. 27, 2011 at 10:51 a.m.
      Why is public opinion deemed so important to "be used by anybody involved in management or in energy policy in the energy sector" when the public is significantly ignorant about how energy is produced? Everyone has an agenda, not just the oil companies. The public response to a poll will mean more when they are informed that a totally electric car, charged from a general electric source, uses more fossil fuel because conversion from a fossil fuel power plant(oil, gas, coal power plants generate most of our electricity)to electricity is about one-third as efficient as using the fossil fuel directly. Since most of the same proponents of energy efficiency and environmental policy oppose nuclear power expansion, we are relegated to fossil fuels to generate the extra electricity added to the demand by electric vehicles. Solar and wind cannot meet near the current demand, let alone the added demand from electric cars. The extra pollutants will just come out the smokestack instead of the tailpipe. Tell the public the whole truth first, then take your poll.
    • Quote 2
      Alan said on Oct. 27, 2011 at 10:43 a.m.
      Like all polls, this does reflect the level of either ignorance or innocence of the sampled group. What our country lacks is a fair dissemination of facts around the importance of energy to the economy, to jobs, and ultimately the environment. My belief is that you would add greatly to the grand discussion by bringing more facts and assessments to the table for the body politic to assimilate than just parroting back poll information. But this is a good and informative start.
    • Quote 2
      Kenneth H. Wax said on Oct. 27, 2011 at 8:40 a.m.
      What is so surpricing? As educators go to our Geology and Engineering profs and ask them where is the problem. Ask the president of Shell USA and the President of Conoco, both UT grads. Between the liberal press, educators, and the curreny administration energy policies are not for the people but for the politiion. Mayor oil companies do not set the price but producing countries, new York and London set the price. Find out what polition is getting the most funding for their foundation from the middle east and you may solve part of the problem.
    • Quote 2
      Jim Risher said on Oct. 27, 2011 at 7:36 a.m.
      Should be sent to all legislators - state and federal. Coupled with understanding how each legislator votes on or promotes energy initiatives it would provide valuable data for public interest groups.
    • Quote 2
      Michael Morton said on Oct. 27, 2011 at 12:59 a.m.
      This type of nonpartisan poll on energy attitudes is long overdue and I'm sure it will be a useful tool going forward in the energy there an energy debate?
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