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)

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Seasonal trends in how consumers feel about the reliability of energy

When we look at what consumers are telling us about various aspects of energy use over time, we sometimes find little trend in the responses. That’s the case for how Americans feel about the reliability of the energy they use in their everyday lives, for example.

One of our Energy Survey questions is, “Considering all sources of energy you usually use in everyday life, how reliable would you say they are — not at all reliable, slightly reliable, moderately reliable, or very reliable?” A prior post on the topic described how answers varied according to income; no surprise, lower income consumers found energy to be less reliable than higher income consumers found it to be. But as a chart in that post shows, consumers’ average views on the topic have changed very little over time. American’s feel that energy is quite reliable overall, and their overall perceptions of reliability are about the same now as when we launched the survey in Fall 2013.

Nevertheless, we do see a lot of variability in the responses from quarter-to-quarter. That made us ask whether there might be a seasonal pattern in the how consumers view reliability. In fact, statistical tests do reveal that a seasonality effect is significant.

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Income shapes consumer views on energy reliability

The reliability of the energy used in everyday life is central to Americans’ feelings of security in their homes and daily activities. The continuous improvements in the infrastructure that supplies energy — whether power lines for electricity or pipelines for natural gas and motor fuels — along with the many, largely unseen systems that make these energy networks work — have made reliability ever less of an issue to the average consumer.

It’s not very often, then, that we have to use candles or flashlights because the electricity is out. Americans do experience occasional power outages and sometimes major storms knock out power for numerous homes in an affected area. But overall, as our survey indicates, the vast majority of Americans find that energy is reliable.

Nevertheless, when the issue of reliability is examined in more depth, we discover that some groups of consumers feel that energy is less reliable than other groups. The specific question we ask is this:

Considering all sources of energy you usually use in everyday life, how reliable would you say they are — not at all reliable, slightly reliable, moderately reliable, or very reliable? 

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Energy reliability remains a lesser concern among most Americans

Reliability — making sure that their customers have energy 24/7 — is a top concern for power companies and other energy suppliers. Energy professionals often are surprised to hear it’s not such a great concern for customers themselves. Well, that’s a testament to just how well America’s energy companies do their jobs in keeping the juices flowing, whether in the form of electricity in the wires or gasoline at the pumps.

Our latest survey results show that, on average, two-thirds of U.S. consumers worry about the reliability of energy only a little or not at all. One-third worry about it at least a fair amount, and over the past two years only 11 percent of consumers said they worried a great deal about energy reliability. During the telephone interviews, our pollsters defined reliability as referring to whether members of a respondent’s household could get the energy they need when they need it.

The table below compares our latest quarterly sample (for Winter 2017, based on data collected throughout the month of January) to the average results for the four quarterly samples gathered last year. The number of consumers expressing higher levels of concern was a bit lower this winter than it was for the prior year on average. That pattern is consistent with what we’ve seen in the past, with the relative level of concern being lower during January than it is in April.

The spring sample, taken each April, often sees the greatest level of concern about energy reliability. Although our survey doesn’t ask specifically about power outages or other events that households might have recently experienced, we suspect that we see a heightened concern in many April samples because spring can bring strong thunderstorms in many parts of the country.

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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

Many consumers confused on energy topics

U-M Energy Institute survey finds focus group members stymied by issues such as energy security and how energy affects the environment and the U.S. economy

Members of focus groups used to help design our new University of Michigan Energy Survey knew a lot about the cost of the gas that powers their cars and the electricity that runs their homes, but didn’t have much of a grasp on the larger issues of energy security and how energy use and supply influences the economy and environment.

In fact, in the focus groups gathered by U-M’s Energy Institute we found the respondents had so much trouble even beginning to think about the connections between energy issues and the economy beyond their own wallets that we decided to completely drop those economic questions from the survey.

Our focus group members did a little better when it came to the relationship between energy and the environment. For example, they clearly understood that how we get and use different types of energy in our daily lives affects the environment in different ways, but they couldn’t connect overall environmental concerns with specific energy issues or forms of energy production.

That inability of focus group members to connect different types of energy production with its corresponding effects on the environment matches up with a general lack of knowledge about where the energy they use in their everyday lives comes from and how it’s generated. While some group members had specific knowledge about a few aspects of energy and the environment, the group’s overall understanding of energy production and environmental issues was low.

That doesn’t mean that the focus group members didn’t understand that energy use and production does influence the environment around us. They clearly did, and they held a wide range of views about the various conflicts of energy and the environmental. Some group members were concerned about air and water pollution, while others linked energy use directly to personal health problems, but never mentioned the larger issues of air and water pollution.

When it came to the issue of global warming and global climate change overall, our focus group members were aware of these matters, but didn’t have a consistent understanding of what those terms mean. Some were confused by the difference between the two terms or used them interchangeably, while others believed that global warming was producing climate change. Some group members saw the issue as simply a matter of warmer temperatures in some regions of the world, while others understood that temperatures and climate get both warmer and colder under the influence of climate change.

This confusion prompted us to develop survey questions that focus on asking only about consumers’ general impressions about how energy influences the environment, rather than asking about specific results of energy use and production.


The group members showed a good understanding of ideas around energy reliability, but only in terms of electricity. When the discussion turned to gasoline, they confused energy security with energy reliability. Those responses caused us to frame questions about reliability in terms of individual energy use, and to ask our respondents what specific form of energy they had in mind when they answered the questions.

On the larger topic of energy security, most of our group members misunderstood the term and didn’t use it in the way energy security is defined by experts. Some thought security referred to power outages, others thought it was about nuclear safety. Despite some improvements in responses to questions refined for later focus groups, members remained vague about security issues and supply disruptions, so we dropped those issues from our survey.

Most consumers feel at ease about their access to energy

When it comes to the energy used to power their homes, most consumers aren’t worried about how reliable the supply is, according to the University of Michigan Energy Survey. To be conducted quarterly, the first installment of this new survey found that 75 percent of American consumers feel that the energy they use is dependable.

While the majority of consumers across the country feel their sources of energy in everyday life are reliable when they come home to switch on the lights or turn up the heat, 31 percent of consumers said they worry a great deal or a fair amount about reliability, with most concerns being raised by residents in the bottom third of household income and property values.

The relatively low degree of concern about reliability stands in contrast to consumer views about the affordability of energy. Many more households are worried about cost than they are about reliability, with 55 percent of respondents reporting that they worry a great deal or a fair amount about the affordability of energy.

When surveying consumers, we explained reliability as whether members of their household would be able to get the energy they need when they need it. We found that the biggest differences in consumers’ views of energy reliability were related to household income and property value. A larger share of consumers whose homes were in the top third of property values said they considered their energy to be very reliable, by a factor of nearly 85 percent. However, just 63 percent of consumers in the lowest third of property values said they consider their energy to be very reliable. Compared with homeowners in the lowest third of property values, renters were only slightly more likely to consider their home energy supply to be reliable.

The U-M Energy Survey found very similar results when the results were sorted by household income levels, with subjects in the bottom third of incomes worrying more about reliability than those in the top third of income. But even among the most worried consumers in the lowest income bracket, less than half described themselves as worrying a great deal or a fair amount about the reliability of their energy supply. Income and property values were the most significant factors in the difference in attitudes about reliability – the researchers didn’t find any significant differences by region, among renters vs. homeowners or even by how much respondents said they knew about energy.


We also asked consumers about what source of energy they had in mind when it comes to concern about reliability. Most consumers said electricity, with nearly 66 percent of respondents replying that they would worry about the reliability of electricity. That’s more than three times the number who said natural gas would be of concern for reliability. Gasoline, oil and petroleum ranked third, with roughly 11 percent of respondents saying that it is the source of energy they think about in terms of reliability.

The responses were influenced by where the survey respondents lived. Consumers in the Northeast worried about the reliability of natural gas more than twice as much as those in the South, reflecting the fact that natural gas is used by less than half of households in the South but is used by roughly three-quarters of households in the other regions. Reliable electricity supply was the biggest concern in all regions but was highest in the South, with 75 percent of respondents saying they were concerned. Worries about gasoline supplies and other petroleum-based fuels were fairly consistent across all four regions, with roughly 11 percent of respondents concerned, outweighing natural gas only in the South.