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Energy and Public Opinion: Confusion Reigns

Energy and Public Opinion: Confusion Reigns

A recent round of public opinion polls conducted by various agencies shows that the world wants more, not less, renewable energy, and while some of these polls are likely reflective of the reality, others are designed to elicit specific responses and in the end we still do not have a clear picture.

Public opinion polls have two parallel aims. One is as a tool to measure actual public opinion to determine where voters stand and where work needs to be done, from the position of political parties, to alter those stances. Another aim is to actually manipulate public opinion by attempting to demonstrate a pre-determined stance, which is a psychologically effective tool. The masses tend to be swayed by what they perceive as the majority opinion. The end result is confusion.

The trick is to understand which type of public opinion poll you are participating in, and the answer is in the question as much as it is often in the organizer.

Let’s take a look at some of the recent polls making their way through the international media:

The Global Consumer Wind Study 2012

This survey, conducted by TNS Gallup at the behest of the Vestas wind energy company, shows that 85% of global consumers want more renewable energy, while 49% are even willing to pay more for products made using renewable energy. Getting more specific, the survey showed that 62% would be more willing to buy products from companies that use wind energy. The survey polled 24,000 people from over 20 countries. The poll also showed that 45% of those surveyed view climate change as one of the world’s key challenges. 

The Corporate Renewable Energy Index Report 2012

Prepared independently by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, this index shows that global investment in new renewable capacity continues to rise, with net investment in renewable power capacity ($237 billion) outpacing net investment in fossil fuel generation ($223 billion) in 2011. However, Bloomberg cautions that continued growth will largely depend on the level of political and regulatory support as well as on cost-competitiveness.

The Advanced Energy Economy Institute Survey 2012

Conducted by John Zogby and JZ Analytics between 15-17 August, an Advanced Energy Economy Institute (AEEI) national survey polled 1,200 voters nationwide, plus 1,052 voters in contested states for November’s US presidential elections—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

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The results of the poll show that 80% of Republican Party members in 12 states believe that “advanced energy” development should be a key area of support by the government. The poll defines “advanced energy” as including renewable energy technology and nuclear power.

The poll also showed that 88% of voters who defined themselves as “independent” feel that “advanced energy” is important to the country’s future. Some 96% of Democrats shared this sentiment, compared to 85% of Republicans. More specifically, the poll shows that 58% of Republican voters in the swing states believe that the US is undergoing an energy crisis or has electricity generation problems. At the same time, 90% of Republican voters believe that the US should be the leader in advanced energy development, while 83% held this same view in the swing states. 

The overall objective of this poll was to demonstrate that public opinion among Republican voters differs sharply from the agenda of the Republican leadership.

The Fracking Polls

In March, a Rasmussen poll indicated that 57% of Americans favour hydraulic fracturing to drill for oil in gas in shale reserves, with just 22% opposed. A similar Pew Research poll, also in March, indicated that more than one-third of Americans know nothing at all about fracking.

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The Pew Research Poll showed that 65% favour allowing increased offshore drilling, compared to 57% in 2011 and 44% in 2010 (during the Gulf Spill).

These polls, though backed by the fracking industry, were largely designed to determine how much work there is yet to be done to boost fracking. Indeed, there is much work to be done if only 22% of Americans even know what fracking is.

A recent poll of New Yorkers lent some optimism to the natural gas industry, when a Quinnipiac survey showed that more residents of New York support hydraulic fracturing, including those who live in areas where fracking would take place. The margin, however, was a narrow one, with 48% supporting fracking and 41% opposed.

The Oklahoma Energy Poll

A poll commissioned by the Sierra Club surveying voters in Oklahoma has gained particular media attention both because of the poll’s sponsors and the nature of the questions asked. The poll surveyed 500 Oklahoma voters, with 78% saying that they generally support expanded use of renewable energy (wind, solar) and 62% saying they would support the phasing out of coal-fired power plants.

But in this poll more than others, the questions are suspiciously leading. For example, the first question clearly sets the stage for an affirmative answer by directing respondents to choose to “meet our growing energy needs” and by using the psychologically loaded “generally speaking”.

“In Oklahoma there are a number of different energy sources that we could use to meet our growing energy needs. Generally speaking, do you support or oppose the expanded use of renewable energy sources such as solar energy and wind energy?”

UK Department of Energy and Climate Change Poll

This poll, which is decidedly less political than its US counterparts, presented its targets with a set of questions that were less leading and therefore more illustrative of actual public sentiment. 

On 19 September, British media reported the results of an updated poll showing that 77% of the UK population supports renewable energy. The poll, conducted by the Department of Energy and Climate Change and encompassing 2,100 households, also showed that 66% of those surveyed support onshore wind, while 12% oppose

On questions that deal with energy in a general sense, 74% of respondents expressed concern over the UK’s dependence on foreign energy sources, but 84% expressed concern about the sharp rises in energy prices. Additionally, 71% expressed concern that the UK is not investing in alternative energy at a fast enough pace, while 65% felt that not enough was being done to ensure the efficient use of existing sources of fossil fuels.

The poll also asked respondents what they felt was the biggest challenge facing the UK today. The answer was overwhelming: unemployment. Climate change ranked only at 2%, and energy supply at 3%.

Views on nuclear power are split, with a third feeling that the benefits outweigh the risk, while 28% feel that the risks outweigh the benefits. 28% regard the risks and benefits as being about the same, with just 11% having no opinion.

By. Jen Alic of Oilprice.com

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