U-M Energy Survey drills deep on consumer attitudes

The new University of Michigan Energy Survey drills deep when it comes to exploring how consumers feel and what they worry about when it comes to energy. Rather than tracking responses to news stories on pipeline construction, Iraqi oil shipments, power plant pollution or other issues that come and go, the U-M Energy Survey probes the concerns that U.S. consumers have year in and year out about the energy they use in their daily lives.

The survey asks carefully crafted questions to find out what concerns most influence consumers and shape their attitudes toward energy use. That’s not by accident. Starting with focus groups, we conducted several wide-ranging discussions with ordinary consumers to make sure we would understand how the public thinks about energy issues and learn what language they use to express those thoughts.

This part of the survey development process gave us the background knowledge necessary to draft effective questions about energy issues that consumers could readily understand and answer. We conducted three focus groups of between five to nine members in each one. In those groups, we discussed issues related to the cost of energy, energy reliability, energy security, the economic impacts of energy, the environmental impacts of energy and energy conservation and efficiency.

We found our respondents through ads on Craigslist, flyers posted in Southeastern Michigan communities and ads placed in local newspapers. We screened the volunteers to create demographic diversity, so that each focus group had a balanced mix of members in terms of gender, age, residency and home rental or ownership, characteristics we believe are all likely to be related to consumers’ awareness and opinions about energy. The three focus group meetings lasted about two hours each and we paid members an incentive of $35 for their participation.

The focus groups found that while consumers were knowledgeable and concerned about energy costs and reliability, they were less informed when it came to the topics of energy security, and the relationship of energy to the economy and the environment. Even on topics where they were knowledgeable, focus group members revealed several gaps in their understanding of energy issues.

In the case of energy costs, our respondents had no trouble remembering what they spend on energy, down to specific dollar amounts, and were very tuned into gasoline prices, which they could report down to the penny. On the other hand, consumers weren’t as readily knowledgeable about the price of home energy, such as electricity. That’s why we designed the survey to ask about the amount of their last energy bill rather than price per kilowatt hour or other unit of home energy. We then asked how they think that cost will change in five years and how expensive home energy would need to get to prompt a change in their household habits.

The upshot is that, overall, our respondents demonstrated a limited knowledge of energy, especially when we discussed where it comes from, how it is delivered, or exactly how it affects the environment. They were confused by the concept of energy security and how energy influences the larger economy and issues such as employment. A good number of the focus group respondents believed that oil was the primary source of their home electricity; that’s technically incorrect, of course. But focus group members were very quick to talk about their direct experiences with energy, such as plugging into a power outlet or their use of gasoline and heating fuels.

Ultimately, we decided to design our survey to tap into these direct energy experiences, and we look forward to seeing how future results will reveal shifts over time in consumer attitudes and knowledge about energy.