Harvard Professor: Americans Want America To Run On Solar and Wind

Posted by Laura Arnold  /   January 03, 2015  /   Posted in Uncategorized  /   2 Comments
Stephen Ansolabehere at the University of Chicago
Stephen Ansolabehere at the University of Chicago

Americans Want America To Run On Solar and Wind

Jeff McMahon

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:

Americans Favor EPA Regulation Over Carbon Tax, Cap And Trade
People Will Pay To Stop Climate Change—But Only $5

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  1. Steve Osborne January 3, 2015 11:53 pm Reply

    I agree whole heartily. I was at a meeting just a couple of weeks ago with IPL (a subsidiary of AEP). There was a lot of talk about solar and wind power at this meeting. When I ask a question about the actual amount of Indiana’s wind and solar power that is generated makes it to the power grid. The only answer I received was, that I was correct and that all the power generated does not make it back to the power grid.

    I do not know about the rest of our country, but here in Indiana several utility companies are seeking rate increases. The one that interested me the most was Duke Energy, They actual wanted to use 1.3 billion to upgrade their power grid. To no surprise, many organizations along with the Energy Regulators did not like that reasoning and to the best of my knowledge it was denied.There needs to be real education of the total cost of solar and wind. This cost needs to include the cost of getting the power that is generated by these sources to the power grid, where it can be distributed.

    The truth be told, around the 1800’s whale oil supplied light for many of are countries and it was replaced with oil. In the early 1900’s, horse and buggies where staples for transportation and they were replaced by automobiles. Coal has been used for centuries, even though health and environmental effects have been known about for quite some time now. No matter what advancements, people in these past fields, have lost jobs to newer more efficient technology, but the newer technology makes way and creates new jobs. Where as, no matter what new technology is used, if our power grid is not updated and processes are not implemented to reduce the power consumption, billions of dollars of clean energy technology really will not make much of a difference with the United States energy problems.


  2. SC Striebeck January 8, 2015 11:05 pm Reply

    I think the best survey would be to have open access to the electrical grid where all interested parties could participate in the production, sale or acquisition of energy in a manner and scale which better reflects the actual preferences of individuals within the market place for energy. Such a market would expand diversity in the market place and most are aware of the conceptual benefits of diversity e.g. such as those found in biological, financial, nutritional and ethnic diversity to name a few.

    We cannot honestly fathom the relative cost and benefit of various sources of energy singularly or intermixed without first removing the massive distortions which currently exist in the energy markets. Much of this distortion is regulatory in nature, arbitrary in source and grossly unadaptable to the ever accelerating advances in technology and informatics. It is perpetuated by many who have an interest in maintaining status quo.

    Whatever one’s personal reasons for supporting his preferred energy source, that choice would be more easily expressed in a free market for energy. I think it wholly reasonable if not perfectly logical that achieving such a context should be the first task at hand. Until then, most other efforts to incentivize substantial use of renewable energy seem doomed to ineffectiveness.

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