Obama Energy Plan Builds on Bipartisan Support for Renewables



  • The most recent UT Energy Poll indicates growing support for renewable technologies among both Republicans and Democrats
  • Some divides remain, as Democrats want the government to have a stronger role in promoting energy technologies while Republicans tend to be more skeptical of government programs
  • The federal government owns 500,000 buildings and 600,000 vehicles, which makes it a large enough buyer to affect energy markets

President Obama has a 20/2020 vision for renewable energy. In December, when he ordered federal agencies to get 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, he got mixed reviews from Washington’s industry and interest groups.

But outside the Beltway, his plan could resonate with a much larger group: American consumers. That’s according to previously unreleased data from the most recent University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll. The poll, based out of the McCombs School of Business, surveyed 2,144 consumers nationwide last October.

A breakdown of poll results by political affiliation shows sharp divides on most issues, between consumers who identify themselves as Republicans and Democrats. But on renewables and energy efficiency, there appears to be a bipartisan political sweet spot.

“Americans disagree on many things about energy,” says Sheril Kirshenbaum, director of the Energy Poll. “But they seem to agree on wanting to promote renewable energy. The president’s plan seems to speak to that.”

That consensus holds up in several of the poll's questions:

  • Asked where the federal government’s energy focus should be, 94 percent of Democrats and 81 percent of Republicans named renewable technologies, making them the most popular energy source.
  • Asked whether they’re concerned about developing renewable energy, 73 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans said yes.
  • Voters are closer together on clean energy alternatives than on fossil fuels. The gap between parties is 4 points on home energy efficiency and 12 points on promoting renewables. By comparison, the parties are 26 points apart on the environmental impacts of both hydraulic fracturing and domestic oil drilling.

Though both parties want to promote clean energy, attitudes differ on how best to do it. Republicans are more likely to favor an all-of-the-above strategy, with 76 percent supporting natural gas and 58 percent wanting increased offshore oil drilling. Democrats are 20 points more likely to favor both financial incentives for renewable tech companies and renewable energy targets for electric utilities.

“It’s consistent with the idea that Democrats see more of a government role in promoting energy technologies,” says Kirshenbaum, “while Republicans tend to be more skeptical of government programs.”

The data also suggest splits among Republicans on energy issues. Among self-identified Strong Republicans, 39 percent believe global climate change is occurring, compared to 62 percent among respondents who categorized themselves as Leaning Republican. Leaning Republicans want renewable technologies to be Uncle Sam’s top energy priority, while Strong Republicans place them behind natural gas and oil.

That helps explain why Congress has stalled most renewable energy bills, says David Spence, professor of Business, Government and Society at McCombs. “The poll shows strong support for renewables and efficiency, except among Strong Republicans. That group is pretty powerful in the House of Representatives, so it stops Congress from doing much in this area.”

It also explains why the White House is using executive orders, more than legislation, to push its renewable goals. With its 500,000 buildings and 600,000 vehicles, the government itself is a large enough buyer to affect energy markets.

“The government is using its demand pull as a way of incentivizing renewables,” says Spence. “By pledging to buy a certain percentage of power, they’re guaranteeing a market for renewables, rather than having to compete purely on price with conventional sources.”

A carbon tax would more effectively close the economic gap between green and fossil fuels, he adds, by raising the prices of sources like coal and oil. But no such bill has made it through Congress. “Because that’s a nonstarter,” says Spence, “the administration is pushing the second-best option.”


Faculty in this Article

David Spence

Professor, Business, Government & Society

Professor Spence's research and teaching focus on business-government relations with emphasis on energy and environmental regulation. He received his...

David Spence teaches in the Texas Executive Education program, featuring open enrollment, custom and certificate classes for executives and organization teams.

About The Author

Steve Brooks

In a quarter-century as a journalist, Steve Brooks has won two Neal awards for excellence in trade reporting and a Press Club of New Orleans award...

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