Americans’ concern about effect of energy use on environment reaches five-year, record high

As the saying goes, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

Both are certainly the case when it comes to the University of Michigan Energy Survey’s latest data from summer 2018. We found last November that while consumers were less concerned about energy affordability, they were increasingly concerned about the impact that energy use has on the environment. That concern is now at a five-year record high.

Energy-related concerns

These latest results continue the trend of the growing degree to which Americans worry about how energy use affects environmental conditions including air quality, water quality, global warming and personal health. As shown in the adjoining chart, the level of environmental concern has reached a five-year high. It also reveals a notable contrast between consumer environmental concerns about energy relative to their concerns about whether energy is reliable and affordable.

Nationally representative, the U-M Energy Survey has tracked U.S. consumers’ attitudes about energy impacts and related affordability, reliability, and environmental concerns since the fall of 2013. Survey questions are administered each quarter, tacked onto the end of the Surveys of Consumers, or “SCA”, as a rider. The SCA is renowned for its consumer sentiment index. (See our Methodology page for details and links to the exact question wording.)

Trends in consumer concerns about energy use and environmental impact, affordability and reliability

Source: University of Michigan Energy Survey data through the most recent quarter (Summer 2018)

Regional differences

So what is driving these results in terms of demographics?

For one, regional differences could be at play. Pew Research Center surveys recently found that people living in coastal areas are more likely to appreciate the effects of climate change compared to their inland counterparts. Also, specific areas of the country require different mixes in their energy portfolio, and face varying energy prices at home and on the road. Here, the five-year record high in concern is largely driven by the Northeast, followed by the West Census regions as seen in regional trend lines below. The South region also shows a statistically significant positive slope while the Midwest shows no significant trend through time. This finding is perhaps not surprising given how Americans view energy in the context of broad environmental issues such as climate change also shows similar regional variation. Northeasterners consistently have shown the highest level of belief that energy use most affects global warming compared to other regions (see U-M Energy Survey report from earlier this year).

Differences in regional trends in Americans’ concern about how energy use impacts the environment

Source: University of Michigan Energy Survey data through the most recent quarter (Summer 2018)

Over time we have also found a significantly decreasing trend in concern about energy affordability. This overall decline in worry about the cost of energy is geographically significant only in the Northeastern and Southern census regions. The regional divergence could be due to relatively higher gas or electricity prices across those states compared to those felt in the Midwest and West. On the other hand, concern over energy reliability has remained relatively statistically stable (flat), and relatively low, over the past five years (not accounting for some inter-quarterly noise). 

Gallup and EIA surveys

Other surveys ask questions along the same vein and somewhat corroborate these estimates. Gallup’s long running environment survey this year found that 72 percent of Americans worry a fair amount or a great deal about the quality of the environment. This is in general alignment with the our Energy Survey results showing that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Americans personally worry a fair amount or a great deal about the impact that energy has on our natural surroundings.  Additionally, Gallup found an 18-year record low of only 25% for the number of Americans who say they worry a great deal about energy availability and affordability.

On the other hand, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently found that one in three households face challenges in paying for or securing adequate heating or cooling for their homes. Those data are from EIA’s 2015 Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS), the agency’s most recent comprehensive public look at household energy use. Their questionnaire uses wording that focuses more specifically on what respondents pay for energy, in contrast to the broader language about level of concern that we use. 

In short, although the monetary cost of energy remains a concern for a significant number of Americans, it’s clear that energy’s environmental “costs” garner a level of concern that is both high and continuing to rise.