Gasoline prices have plunged to Great Recession levels, but so far, consumers aren’t embracing their gas-guzzling ways of 2008.
That’s according to the latest University of Texas Energy Poll, released February 18 by the McCombs School of Business and the Kay Bailey Hutchison Center for Energy, Law and Business. A nationwide sample of 2,043 adults, surveyed in January, reports that consumers are prioritizing energy efficiency and renewables, despite falling energy prices:
- Over the next five years, 34 percent expect to get a hybrid vehicle and 27 percent are eyeing a fully electric one. That’s up 10 points from five years ago, when the average price of gas was $3.51 a gallon compared to today’s $1.80.
- Annual household miles driven are down 8 percent from a year ago and 22 percent since the poll began.
- Solar panels are in the plans for 34 percent of respondents, up from 21 percent five years ago.
This is a U-turn from the past, when cheap gas led consumers to lose interest in fuel-efficient cars, says David Spence, professor of Business, Government, and Society at McCombs. “Perhaps people now have an intuitive sense that energy efficiency is an economically sound investment,” he says.
More consumers are seeing another benefit of green energy: employment. When asked which source contributes the most to U.S. jobs, 21 percent cite renewables, up 4 points from a year ago.
In fact, the ongoing shakeup of energy markets is influencing consumer attitudes all around:
Lower Gas Prices. For the first time in the poll’s five years, more Americans say the energy issues facing the nation are headed in the right direction — 34 percent versus 26 percent who disagree.
The rising optimism tracks closely with falling gas prices: Only 35 percent think gas prices are high, down from 58 percent just four months earlier. Even so, the majority of respondents expect gas prices to rise over the next six months.
Carbon Emissions. Over the past four years, a steady 70 percent have registered their belief that global climate change is real. In this survey, for the first time, they were asked what the U.S. should do about it. Their answer: 64 percent of respondents think reducing carbon emissions should be a priority.
Of those who believe in climate change, 48 percent say the U.S. should take a lead and another 43 percent say all nations should act equally. Three-fourths of all respondents are aware of December’s U.N. climate change conference in Paris, where 195 countries agreed to cut greenhouse gasses.
From a pollster’s perspective, Kirshenbaum finds those numbers impressive. “The majority of Americans by far think the U.S. has a role to play in climate change,” she says.
Nuclear Power. While nuclear power is still a less popular energy source (with only 39 percent in favor), climate change is prompting some consumers to take a second look. Nineteen percent of respondents support the use of nuclear energy as a clean power source (up from 11 percent four years ago), and 33 percent support expanded loan guarantees from the federal government — its highest level ever.
“Nuclear power is a carbon-free alternative,” says Kirshenbaum. “It tracks with more people being aware of climate change.”
Energy Security. For the first time, energy security isn’t just about energy independence. In the latest poll, respondents’ number one fear is terrorists targeting energy facilities. Dependence on Middle Eastern oil came in second, and electric grid vulnerabilities ranked third.
This represents “a confluence of things that have happened the past six months,” says Spence, from high-profile terrorist attacks to reports of hacking electric grids.
Kirshenbaum agrees: “Terrorism is on a lot of people’s minds right now, especially after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.” It will take future polls, though, to see whether the new definition of energy security is a blip or a trend. “It might be a knee-jerk reaction,” she says. “I would like to ask that question again, over a series of years.”
Read the full press release from The University of Texas at Austin.