Many consumers confused on energy topics

U-M Energy Institute survey finds focus group members stymied by issues such as energy security and how energy affects the environment and the U.S. economy

Members of focus groups used to help design our new University of Michigan Energy Survey knew a lot about the cost of the gas that powers their cars and the electricity that runs their homes, but didn’t have much of a grasp on the larger issues of energy security and how energy use and supply influences the economy and environment.

In fact, in the focus groups gathered by U-M’s Energy Institute we found the respondents had so much trouble even beginning to think about the connections between energy issues and the economy beyond their own wallets that we decided to completely drop those economic questions from the survey.

Our focus group members did a little better when it came to the relationship between energy and the environment. For example, they clearly understood that how we get and use different types of energy in our daily lives affects the environment in different ways, but they couldn’t connect overall environmental concerns with specific energy issues or forms of energy production.

That inability of focus group members to connect different types of energy production with its corresponding effects on the environment matches up with a general lack of knowledge about where the energy they use in their everyday lives comes from and how it’s generated. While some group members had specific knowledge about a few aspects of energy and the environment, the group’s overall understanding of energy production and environmental issues was low.

That doesn’t mean that the focus group members didn’t understand that energy use and production does influence the environment around us. They clearly did, and they held a wide range of views about the various conflicts of energy and the environmental. Some group members were concerned about air and water pollution, while others linked energy use directly to personal health problems, but never mentioned the larger issues of air and water pollution.

When it came to the issue of global warming and global climate change overall, our focus group members were aware of these matters, but didn’t have a consistent understanding of what those terms mean. Some were confused by the difference between the two terms or used them interchangeably, while others believed that global warming was producing climate change. Some group members saw the issue as simply a matter of warmer temperatures in some regions of the world, while others understood that temperatures and climate get both warmer and colder under the influence of climate change.

This confusion prompted us to develop survey questions that focus on asking only about consumers’ general impressions about how energy influences the environment, rather than asking about specific results of energy use and production.

Energy-Reliability-vs-Security2

The group members showed a good understanding of ideas around energy reliability, but only in terms of electricity. When the discussion turned to gasoline, they confused energy security with energy reliability. Those responses caused us to frame questions about reliability in terms of individual energy use, and to ask our respondents what specific form of energy they had in mind when they answered the questions.

On the larger topic of energy security, most of our group members misunderstood the term and didn’t use it in the way energy security is defined by experts. Some thought security referred to power outages, others thought it was about nuclear safety. Despite some improvements in responses to questions refined for later focus groups, members remained vague about security issues and supply disruptions, so we dropped those issues from our survey.