Consumers top worry: How energy pollutes

Latest University of Michigan Energy Survey finds that more people worry about the environmental effects of energy than how much it costs

Consumers worry about how much their energy use hurts the environment even more than they fret about how much the cost of energy hurts their wallets, according to the latest University of Michigan Energy Survey. This finding was as much a surprise to the researchers who conducts the survey as it is to experts who believe that the environment always loses out when pitted against price in the eyes of consumers.

The 18-question January 2014 survey echoed findings from U-M’s initial energy survey, conducted in October 2013. Taken together, the two polls find that 58 percent of consumers say they have a great deal or fair amount of concern about how energy affects the environment, while a combined 53 percent say they hold that degree of concern about being able to pay for energy.

Another finding in the survey highlights just how much consumers worry about energy and the environment: No matter what their level of income was, the respondents’ level of concern about energy’s effect on the environment didn’t change at all. When it came to other factors, such as the affordability and reliability of energy, the survey found that the levels of concern went down as income went up.

The consumers surveyed worried by far and away the most about how burning gasoline, oil and petroleum can damage air quality. The survey found 36 percent of those questioned in the January poll cited gas and oil as the source of energy they think most affects the environment, while 46 percent of the respondents said air quality was the aspect of the environment most affected by energy use. The second-highest level of worry among survey participants was how their energy use might worsen global warming, with 24 percent citing that as a concern.

Overall, about three-quarters of consumers said they believe that energy use affects the environment by at least a fair amount.

The questions were all straightforward, to ensure accurate assessments of consumer attitudes, asking simply, “How much do you personally worry about the environmental impact (or cost or reliability) of energy?” Respondents were then asked to rate their concern as either a great deal, a fair amount, only a little, or not at all.

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In analyzing the survey results, researchers found that the environment didn’t just elicit the greatest level of concern, but also was the area where consumers’ feelings were the most intense. Intensity was measured by looking at the ratio of respondents who replied that they worried “a great deal” about the environmental effects to the total of those who responded that they worried either “a great deal” or “a fair amount.”

Of those consumers who worried about environment impact, 39 percent had the more intense degree of concern, compared with 31 percent when it came to reliability and affordability, with the overall level of concern about reliability lower.

Another perspective on the results comes from looking at the respondents who said they weren’t concerned about the three aspects of energy use probed in the survey. That analysis found that 45 percent of those surveyed said they didn’t worry about reliability, and less than 30 percent of respondents said they didn’t worry about affordability and
environmental impact.

Looking ahead, the survey also asked consumers whether they expected energy use in everyday life to affect the environment more, less or about the same during the next five years. About 86 percent of the survey respondents said that they expect energy’s affect on the environment to increase. Once again, researchers found no significant differences in responses by region, income, home status or self-reported knowledge of energy, which matches the October 2013 survey results.