What source of energy do Americans think affects the environment the most?

One of the questions we ask during the Energy Survey is about what source of energy Americans think affects the environment the most. This question is the third in a sequence that probes views on the environmental dimensions of energy (see our questionnaire here).

We first ask each respondent how much he or she believes that energy affects the environment. Based on the latest data, 77 percent of Americans say that they think energy affects the environment at least at fair amount, in contrast to 20 percent who say it affects the environment only a little and 3 percent who don’t believe energy use affects the environment at all.

We next ask about the aspect of the environment that they think is most affected by energy use. Based on their answer to that question, we then ask the respondents what source of energy they think is most responsible. This question is posed in a completely open-ended fashion; the university’s professional telephone interviewers do not recite a list of energy sources from which to choose or otherwise prompt a respondent for an answer. The results are shown in the following chart, which tracks consumer responses over the first three years of the U-M Energy Survey. The most frequent answer is some form of petroleum, reflecting responses of petroleum, oil or a petroleum product such as gasoline. Although the number of respondents who fingered petroleum varied over the three years of quarterly samples shown, no clear trend is apparent. On average, 36 percent of consumers said that some form of petroleum was the source of energy that affected the environment the most.

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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.   

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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

When it comes to energy’s environmental impact, Southerners think differently

ANN ARBOR — Southerners are less likely than Americans in other parts of the country to believe that energy affects the environment by at least a fair amount, according to the latest findings of the University of Michigan Energy Survey.

A joint effort of the U-M Energy Institute and Institute for Social Research, the quarterly survey gauges consumer perceptions and beliefs about key energy-related concerns including affordability, reliability and impact on the environment.

When asked if energy affects the environment, “not at all,” “a little,” “a fair amount” or “a lot,” 69 percent of Southerners chose the latter two answers. The choices of “a fair amount” or “a lot” were given by 77 percent of consumers in the Midwest, 79 percent in the West and 82 percent in the Northeast.

Southerners do not differ significantly from other regions in their responses to the survey’s other questions concerning reliability or affordability and, on average, they pay about the same amount for home energy as the nation as a whole (Westerners pay the least).

“Although their perception of energy’s impact on the environment is a bit less than the national average, the fraction of Southerners who believe that energy affects the environment by at least a fair amount still exceeds two-thirds,” said survey director John DeCicco, a research professor at the U-M Energy Institute.

Nationwide, three-fourths of Americans believe that energy affects the environment either a fair amount or a lot, a finding that has held up over the three rounds of U-M Energy Survey data analyzed to date.

Other results from data collected through the latest energy survey include:

  • Consumers worry much less about the reliability of energy than they do about its affordability and impact on the environment.
  • Consumers consistently say that they worry about the impact of energy on the environment at least as much as they worry about affordability.
  • On average, Americans believe that gasoline would become unaffordable if it hit roughly $5.89 per gallon, a level about 70 percent higher than the U.S. average gasoline price of $3.44 per gallon for the months the survey was taken.
  • Consumers, on average, believe that a monthly home energy bill of roughly $400 would be unaffordable for their households, a level about 110 percent higher than (a bit more than double) the average self-reported energy bill of $190 per month.
  • Consumers appear to be notably more sensitive to increases in the price of gasoline than they are to increases in home energy bills.

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The U-M Energy Survey is administered four times a year through a set of questions added quarterly to the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, conducted by ISR since 1946. Energy data will be made available through public archives generally less than a year after each new sample is analyzed.

University of Michigan Energy Institute
The demand for economically and environmentally sound energy solutions is urgent and global. The Energy Institute builds on the University of Michigan’s strong energy research heritage at the heart of the nation’s automotive and manufacturing industries to develop and integrate science, technology and policy solutions to pressing energy challenges.

Institute for Social Research
Established in 1949, the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research is the world’s largest academic social science survey and research organization, and a world leader in developing and applying social science methodology, and in educating researchers and students from around the world.

Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers
Based on telephone interviews with 500 U.S. households conducted every month, the U-M Surveys of Consumers is a rotating panel survey based on a nationally representative sample that gives each household in the coterminous U.S. an equal probability of being selected.

Contact: Amy Mast, 734-615-5678, amymast@umich.edu

Consumers worry about energy’s impact on environment regardless of income

ANN ARBOR — No matter what their income bracket, American consumers all express an equal degree of “personal worry” about the impact of energy use on the environment, according to the newest findings of the University of Michigan Energy Survey. A joint effort of the U-M Energy Institute and Institute for Social Research, the quarterly survey gauges consumer perceptions and beliefs about key energy-related concerns including affordability, reliability and impact on the environment.

During one portion of the survey, respondents were asked how much they personally worry about three factors: energy reliability, affordability and environmental impact. Responses were sorted into three self-reported income brackets. Researchers found that respondents in the lowest of the three income brackets worried about reliability and affordability of energy more than those in the top- and middle-income thirds. However, the percentage of respondents who reported worrying a “great deal” or a “fair amount” about energy’s environmental impact held steady across the income brackets, averaging close to 60%.

Data were collected in January 2014 while parts of the country were experiencing frigid weather and regional increases in energy prices. Nevertheless, consumers consistently expressed at least as much concern for the energy’s environmental impact as they did for its affordability.

“The fact that US consumers care as much about the environmental impact of energy as they do about its affordability was a surprise finding from our first round of data, collected last October,” said John DeCicco, U-M Energy Institute research professor and survey director. The second round of U-M Energy Survey data shows that this result was no seasonal anomaly. “In fact,” notes DeCicco, “the January data strengthen the statistical significance of American consumers’ uniformly high degree of concern about the environment even in relation to core issues such as energy costs.”

The U-M Energy Survey also probed consumers’ expectations about their energy bills and the cost levels that would find to be unaffordable. Although average self-reported home energy bills rose from October to January (as expected based on the weather), the level that would be considered unaffordable did not change significantly, averaging out to roughly $420 per month.

How much consumers felt that their bills would have to increase before becoming unaffordable was found to vary by income bracket. If energy bills doubled (a 100% increase), they would be seen as unaffordable by the lower third of households according to income bracket. Consumers in the middle-income bracket view a 130% increase as unaffordable. However, energy bills would have to roughly triple (a 200% increase) before being seen as unaffordable to consumers in the top third of self-reported household income.

Compared to home energy bills, “consumers express much less tolerance for gasoline price hikes,” notes DeCicco. As might be expected, the gasoline price that consumers would see as unaffordable varies by income. But on average, an 84% increase, to roughly $5.90 per gallon, would push consumers to where they felt they’d have to make significant changes in their vehicle use or how they travel. That’s in comparison to the roughly 145% increase in home energy bills that would be seen as unaffordable to consumers on average.

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The U-M Energy Survey is administered four times a year through a set of questions added quarterly to the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, conducted by ISR since 1946. Energy data will be made available through public archives generally less than a year after each new sample is analyzed.

University of Michigan Energy Institute
The demand for economically and environmentally sound energy solutions is urgent and global. The Energy Institute builds on the University of Michigan’s strong energy research heritage at the heart of the nation’s automotive and manufacturing industries to develop and integrate science, technology and policy solutions to pressing energy challenges.

Institute for Social Research
Established in 1949, the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research is the world’s largest academic social science survey and research organization, and a world leader in developing and applying social science methodology, and in educating researchers and students from around the world.

Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers
Based on telephone interviews with 500 U.S. households conducted every month, the U-M Surveys of Consumers is a rotating panel survey based on a nationally representative sample that gives each household in the coterminous U.S. an equal probability of being selected.

Contact: Amy Mast, 734-615-5678, amymast@umich.edu

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.Continue Reading