Stephen Ansolabehere at the University of Chicago
by Jeff McMahon, Forbes Contributor
Americans “overwhelmingly” prefer solar and wind energy to coal, oil, and nuclear energy, according to a Harvard political scientist who has conducted a comprehensive survey of attitudes toward energy and climate for the last 12 years.
Americans see natural gas as a bridge fuel that falls somewhere in between, offering some benefits over traditional fuels but more “harms” than solar and wind, said Harvard Government Professor Stephen Ansolabehere during a December appearance at the University of Chicago.
“Americans want to move away from coal, oil and nuclear power and toward wind and solar,” said Ansolabehere, introduced as “the leading energy political scientist in the world” to climate scientists, physicists, economists and public-policy experts at The Energy Policy Institute of Chicago (EPIC). Ansolabehere described solar and wind energy as “hugely popular, overwhelmingly popular.”
So popular, in fact, that they easily cross the partisan divide that polarizes Americans on so many other issues. About 80 percent of Americans said they want solar and wind energy to “increase a lot,” and another 10 percent or so want it to increase somewhat.
“In order to get 90 percent, that means a lot of Republicans like solar and wind—more than coal. Everybody likes those sources. This is non-partisan.”
Ansolabehere began surveying Americans on their energy preferences in 2001, when engineers and scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including now-Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, asked him to gauge public support for a plan to address climate change by building 300 new nuclear power plants.
Ansolabehere found that even Americans who worry about climate change don’t support nuclear power. While such a result would not be surprising post-Fukushima, it surprised the engineers, who were envisioning a nuclear renaissance.
“People who were concerned about global warming did not want the technology that they were going to put forward. For the engineers, this was a show stopper.”
Ansolabehere’s findings might also be a show stopper for the Obama Administration’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.
“There are very few conservationists, people who want to use less electricity overall,” he said. “There are also very few people who say all of the above, and this is an interesting note because I don’t know if you remember a few years ago the Obama administration decided this would be a good thing to campaign on, this all-of-the-above strategy. It might have been a good idea to placate West Virginia coal miners, but in fact there aren’t a lot of people who want all of the above in the energy sector.”
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz still routinely uses the phrase “all of the above” to describe the Energy Department’s approach to energy sources.
People prefer solar and wind because they believe them to be less harmful—not to the global environment, but to the local, Ansolabehere said. People are less motivated by concerns about global warming than they are about local pollution and health risks.
“People think of solar and wind as relatively harmless, coal oil and nuclear as harmful and natural gas as somewhere in between.”
And Americans are more motivated by perceived harm than they are by perceived cost.
But Ansolabehere also found that Americans do not have a good grasp of the true cost of solar and wind, nor are they willing to shoulder that cost. They believe solar and wind are cheaper than nuclear power and oil, which they perceive to be the most expensive sources.
“The average member of the American public has the picture about right,” he said. “People have the relative harms about right. People have the relative costs for traditional fuels about right. They’re way too optimistic about [the cost of] solar and wind, and the caution is that if you inform them, you’re going to get lower support.”
Ansolabehere and Georgetown public policy professor David M. Konisky detail these findings and more in a recent book, “Cheap and Clean: How Americans Think About Energy in the Age of Global Warming” published by MIT Press. They discovered that Americans also have strong opinions about the best way to control carbon emissions and how much it should cost: