Environmental worry rises as concerns about energy costs fall

Over the past year, the degree of concern that American consumers express about the effect of energy on the environment has increased even as their concern about what they have to pay for energy has decreased. That’s the clear picture that emerges in the latest data from the University of Michigan Energy Survey, which has tracked U.S. consumers’ concerns about the affordability, reliability and environmental impact of energy over the past four years. As seen in this chart, 65 percent of survey respondents say that they personally worry at least a fair amount about how energy use affects the environment. That’s roughly 20 percentage points higher than the number who express that degree of concern about the affordability of energy. (See our questionnaire for the exact questions asked and their sequence in the survey.) As it has since the start of the U-M Energy Survey, concern about energy reliability is much lower, with an average of 30 percent of respondents expressing at least a fair amount of concern about whether they will reliably have electricity, heat or fuel.

Concern about the environment edged out concern about affordability even from the start of the U-M Energy Survey in fall 2013. Gasoline prices were much higher then, but environmental worries became statistically greater than concern about energy affordability even before oil prices fell in late 2014. Since then the gap between environmental concern and concern about energy costs has widened, particularly over the past year and a half (the most recent six quarterly surveys, from April 2016 through July 2017). Our next survey, taken over the month of October, is just wrapping up, but once we analyze the new data, we expect the gap between environmental and cost concerns to remain wide.

A closer look at consumer feelings about energy costs can be seen in the affordability index values, which we track separately for gasoline prices and home energy bills. The next chart shows these indices over the past four years; here, a higher index means that consumers fine energy to be more affordable, which generally correlates with a lesser degree of concern about energy costs. An affordability index of 100 means that an energy cost would have to go up by 100 percent relative to what it was when the survey was taken. Comparing this chart to the first one, it’s clear that the gap between consumers’ degrees of concern about the environment and about energy affordability widened when gasoline prices fell in late 2014, making motor fuel more affordable than it had been over the year before. As detailed in our latest article on gasoline affordability, consumers views on this score have been statistically stable over the past year. Since last summer, the index has hovered around the 100 level, meaning that pump prices would have to double before the average consumer would be motivated to change how they travel. As for home energy bills, consumers have recently found them to be significantly more affordable over the past two quarters.

We also examined how energy-related concerns vary according to a consumer’s household income. One might expect that the extent to which individuals worry about a given energy-related issue would fall as incomes rise. As seen in the next chart, that is certainly the case for concerns about the affordability and reliability of energy. (The error bars represent 95% confidence intervals.) These results are shown on a scale of 0-100, where zero represents the responses of consumers who say that they are not all concerned about an issue and 100 represents those who express a great deal of concern. As for the affordability of energy, consumers in the lower third of the distribution by self-reported household income have a concern level of 58. This metric drops to 47 for middle-income consumers and 41 for upper-income consumers, both below the neutral level of 50 that would reflect consumers being neither very concerned nor unconcerned.  Concern about the reliability of energy is lower overall, but shows a similarly clear drop off as household income rises.

Regarding the impact of energy use on the environment, lower income consumers express a somewhat greater degree of concern than others. However, on this issue the trend across income categories is much less pronounced. We see no statistically significant difference between the views of middle and upper income consumers, and the average level of concern is 62 across all income brackets. This finding refutes a view, pushed over the years by anti-regulatory pundits, that the environment is mainly a concern of the “elites,” and that lower and middle-income Americans concerned about costs don’t have the luxury of worrying about the environment. Our data show that lower-income Americans are in fact more concerned than average. In short, Americans express a relatively high level of the concern about how energy affects the environment regardless of their income.