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.

A rising belief that energy use affects global warming

This report highlights some notable trends in consumer views about the link between energy use and the environment as observed over the 17 quarterly survey samples analyzed to date, from Fall 2013 through Fall 2017. Not only do a rising number of Americans say that energy use affects the environment “a lot,” but a significantly growing portion of the population believes that global warming is the aspect of the environment most affected by energy use. That’s a view now held by 36% of U.S. consumers, compared to 25% when the survey started in Fall 2013.

Workers rescuing residents of Fayetteville, NC, homes flooded by Hurricane Matthew in October, 2016.

Rescue workers evacuating residents of homes in Fayetteville, NC, during floods caused by Hurricane Matthew, October 2016. Credit: U.S. Army National Guard

Other highlights from the report include:

  • Americans are more concerned about the effect of energy on the environment than they are about the affordability of energy, and much more concerned about the environmental and cost impacts of energy than about its reliability.
  • The belief that global warming is the environmental concern most affected by energy use has risen twice as fast among women as it has among men.
  • The South in particular has seen a large jump in the belief that global warming is the aspect of the environment most impacted by energy use, with the number of Southerners holding that view rising from 20% of in Fall 2013 to 34% as of last year.

Moreover, both the degree of belief that energy use affects the environment and levels of concern about the issue are fairly uniform across income brackets, in contrast to the differences in perspective seen by gender and by region.

For further details, download the report: A Rising Belief that Everyday Energy Use Affects Global Warming.

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.

Concerns about energy’s impact on the environment continue to edge out concerns about affordability

With three years and counting of data, a clear trend has emerged: consumers are more concerned about how energy impacts the environment than they about whether it is sufficiently affordable and reliable. The extent to which consumers worry about reliability — that is, whether their lights stay on and the fuels they need are readily available — has consistently lagged their concerns about energy costs and environmental impacts.

Over the first four quarterly samples starting with the launch of the U-M Energy Survey in October 2013, the difference between the levels of concern about the environment and about affordability was not statistically significant, even though the average for the environment was nominally higher than that for affordability. However, the significance of the gap grew as additional data came in. By the second year, we were able to report that the environment had pulled ahead of affordability as Americans’ top energy-related concern. As seen in the chart below, based on data over the first three years of the survey, concern about affordability has lessened a bit in 2016 while concern about the environment has remained strong in spite of some transient ups and downs.   

Continue Reading

Environment pulls ahead of affordability as Americans’ top energy-related concern

In our very first survey, taken in October 2013, we were surprised to find that consumers were at least as worried about the impact of energy on the environment as they were about its affordability. The number of respondents who said that they were concerned either “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about the environmental impact of energy was 60 (±5) percent. At the same time, the number who expressed the same levels of concern about the affordability of energy was 55 (±5) percent.

Although ecology edged out the wallet numerically, the difference was not statistically significant in our initial sample of 500 U.S. households. For that reason, we reported an essentially equal level of consumer anxiety about these two energy-related concerns, a finding that was noteworthy in and of itself.

As time went on and each new quarterly U-M Energy Survey was taken, the environmental concern retained its edge. And now, with five quarterly samples and a total of 2,500 consumer interviews, concern about the environment clearly beats concern about affordability, 60 (±2) percent to 55 (±2) percent.Continue Reading