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American Perceptions Of Power

Tue, 04/08/2014 - 1:00am
Nikita Ernst, Associate Editor

More and more Americans claim to be informed about where their energy comes from, but does that knowledge translate into behavior? A Harris Poll conducted in February of this year shows that the majority of Americans make small efforts to save energy - doing things like flipping the switch when leaving a room and exchanging inefficient bulbs with more efficient ones, but larger lifestyle changes have yet to materialize. 

Compared to 2012, less people seek out ENERGY STAR labeled appliances, utilize power strips, or replace light bulbs in non-critical areas of their home. Only about half of the people polled said that they were reducing hot water usage with shorter showers, washing their clothes in cold water, or took proactive steps to weatherize their homes for optimum heating and cooling efficiency. A mere 10% have had a home energy evaluation. 

Just as many Americans are willing to pay more for higher quality food - may it be organic or GMO-free - it makes sense that they are willing to continue to pay more in electricity for similar "quality of life" experiences. Parents want their kids' clothes to be clean; homeowners want their windows to match the aesthetics of the rest of the house. And it's going to take a lot more than just talk about climate change to get anyone to stop taking a long shower. While the recession is technically over, that memory is still fresh, especially when making large purchasing decisions. It's easier to take no notice of an energy bill that stays the same, or even just increases a little, than to spend the extra money up front even if for something that would pay for itself in the long run. 

The poll also gauged opinion on the risks and benefits of various energy sources. Unsurprisingly, most of the people polled felt that solar and wind power were seen as having benefits that outweigh any risk and as the best options in terms of environmental impact. The perception of natural gas, which, in recent years, has become synonymous with hydraulic fracturing, has actually improved somewhat, with almost 70% of respondents agreeing that the benefits outweighed the risks. Opinions on coal remain evenly divided while faith in the safety and environmental friendliness of nuclear power has decreased, down seven percentage points from five years ago. 

However, it should be noted that for almost the entire duration of the poll, February 12th through the 17th, Americans were inundated with news of the fire and subsequent nuclear waste leak at the Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Opinions about nuclear power were bound to take a turn for the worse while the twenty-four hour news cycle kept reminding us that we did not have the answers to the questions: How could this happen? What does it mean to be exposed to a radiation leak? Is nuclear power still safe? It's easy to forget the danger until we are physically reminded that nearly no power generation comes without risk and that no nuclear power comes without eternal waste. 

As easy as nuclear energy can fall to the back of our minds, it seems so can geothermal and biomass energy sources. The poll found that while a little more than half of respondents felt that the two energy sources' benefits outweighed any risks, the other half didn't know enough to be sure. It is not too surprising that these two are less well-known, as geothermal heating for a home still comes with a high up-front cost making it less popular and most people don't tinker quite enough to convert their cars to burn fry oil. That result also points to a lack of education by those industries and perhaps, especially in the case of biofuels, a bit too much political fog to wade through for the average American to understand the reality of the technology.

The better question might be: does it matter if Americans understand the risks involved in the different kinds of energy sources? Unless you are going to build a windmill in your backyard (or pay some other hefty price for self-sufficiency), you have little choice in where your energy comes from. The average American plugs their life into the wall and only knows what the bill says every month; there is no box to check with what kind of power you want use. Beyond that, would we be willing to pay for it if we could choose? And would a change in the way we pay actually change how we use? 

 

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