Attention, presidential candidates! After weeks of debating about energy, it might be time to do some listening. In September, The University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll questioned American consumers about their personal energy platforms. Turns out, those platforms aren’t quite the same as the ones they’ve been hearing from lecterns on national TV.
The third ‘wave’ of the university’s twice-yearly survey, which interviewed 2,092 people, sends a message to both major parties: Despite high gasoline prices and a weak economy, more Americans are feeling positive about their energy futures. A majority are seeing green, and more and more of them plan to vote with their wallets, as well as their ballots.
“We can tell by the responses that people do focus on energy issues, regardless of their political affiliation,” says poll director Sheril Kirshenbaum.
Optimists are still a minority, but a growing number of consumers say energy issues are headed in the right direction: 24 percent this September, compared to 14 percent a year ago. Pessimists have dropped from 42 percent to 36 percent.
In similar fashion, 47 percent expect their choices for clean and affordable energy to improve over the next five years, while only 19 percent expect choices to get worse.
Consumers also feel a bit sunnier towards the energy policies of President Barack Obama. His satisfaction rating has improved, to 31 percent, though his dissatisfaction rating is still higher, at 44 percent. Low as they might sound, his ratings beat most other energy players - such as oil and gas companies, with only 15 percent approval, and Congress, at a rock-bottom 8 percent.
Respondents favor Obama’s energy platform over Mitt Romney’s, 37 percent to 28 percent. Among much-coveted Independents, Obama has a narrower edge, 27 to 23 percent. But in an ominous sign for both candidates, a third of all voters are undecided or not sure.
Those numbers might reflect that Obama has a longer track record on energy issues, says David Spence, associate professor of business, government and society at McCombs. But they also suggest that voters prefer Obama’s centrist mix of competing energy sources.
“Obama seems a little to the right of many in his party on issues like offshore oil production and fracking,” says Spence. “A plurality seem more comfortable with the balance struck by the administration, compared with what they see from Governor Romney.”
The Fix is in a Mix
Americans opt for a rich menu of energy choices when they’re asked which specific issues would sway their votes. They name a variety of sources, with the cleanest ones on top. Despite bad publicity over loan guarantees for solar manufacturer Solyndra, 58 percent support financial incentives for renewable companies, and 57 percent want utilities to set quotas for green energy. Natural gas gets thumbs up from 58 percent.
Respondents are less excited about oil, but they still want it in the mix. The XL Keystone pipeline draws support from 45 percent, while 44 percent would expand drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
Consumers have deeper reservations about two nonrenewable energy sources. A 40 percent plurality wants to burn less coal. On nuclear power, they’re undecided, with 39 percent supporting, 18 percent against and 44 percent in the middle. When asked whether the government should guarantee loans for nuclear plants, 29 percent say no, and only 25 percent say yes.
“That kind of mix has been true in all three waves of the poll,” notes Spence. “There’s substantial support for anything to boost domestic production. Yet they want it to be as clean and environmentally friendly as possible.”
Green Tech and Greenbacks
Environmental concerns run through a wide array of answers. More than half of consumers call themselves environmentalists, and say there does not need to be a trade-off between economy and environment. But even if there were, 39 percent are willing to pay higher energy prices for environmental protection.
That’s partly because they’re feeling slightly better about the economy, says Wayne Hoyer, executive director of the poll and marketing chair at McCombs. “When times are bad, people are in survival mode. When they have more confidence in the future, they’re more interested in helping the environment.”
Another factor seems to be concern about global climate change. Fully 73 percent think it’s occurring, up from 65 percent just six months ago.
“Over the three waves, I’ve seen upticks across the board in the number of people who believe that climate change is real and that human activity is driving it,” says Spence. “It’s nice to see that the scientific consensus is trickling down to popular opinion.”
On a personal level, consumers seem increasingly eager to adopt green energy technologies, compared to a year ago. Over the next five years, 45 percent expect to use “smart meters” to manage their home electric use, and 28 percent expect to install solar panels. Hybrid vehicles are eyed by 36 percent, while smaller numbers of people are looking at all-electric vehicles, or alternative fuels like biodiesels or natural gas.
“Technologies are changing fast, and people are attuned to that,” says Kirshenbaum. “People are seeing more commercials about hybrid cars and natural gas. This may be contributing to higher anticipated adoption rates for new energy technologies.”
Misconceptions and Disconnects
Perhaps also because consumers are simply paying more attention, some 33 percent consider themselves knowledgeable about energy issues, a sharp increase from 24 percent a year earlier. There’s a gender divide: Among those who said they were knowledgeable about energy, men are more likely than women to think they’re up on the issues, 45 percent to 20.
Some, though, may overestimate their energy savvy. A majority say that Saudi Arabia and Iraq are America’s top two suppliers of foreign oil. In reality, Canada is number one, while Iraq places much further down the list.
Consumers display a different sort of confusion about the price of gasoline. It’s their top energy concern, and 63 percent would be more likely to vote for a candidate who promises to lower gas prices. But only 32 percent think the president has any power to manage the price at the pump, and a mere 9 percent think he has the greatest power.
“Clearly, there’s a disconnect,” says Kirshenbaum. “Lower gas prices are something the public wants, but the candidates can do little to influence prices. It makes you wonder what really drives voting behavior, and whether it reflects reality or what people want reality to be.”