The energy transition juggernaut

Energy columnist Chris Nelder reviews public opinion polls and finds that money is no longer able to stop the energy transition juggernaut.
Written by Chris Nelder, Contributor

Poll after poll show that citizens of the Western world want more renewable power and are willing to pay for it. So what's the hold-up?

A new poll conducted by Yale and Harvard researchers and published in the science journal Nature this week found that the average U.S. citizen is willing to pay between $128 and $260 more per year in electricity bills ($162 on average, or 13 percent more) to achieve 80 percent clean energy by 2035. Support varies by demographics, of course—it's lower among Republicans, people of color, and older individuals—and support drops further if the clean energy standard includes nuclear power and natural gas. As a practical matter, the researchers found in a voting simulation that the cost increase would have to be under $48 a year to pass the House, and under $59 a year to be filibuster-proof in the Senate. Even so, it's clear that the overwhelming majority of Americans and their elected representatives would support the "80 percent by 2035" standard if it increased electricity prices by less than 5 percent.

Similarly, clean air enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support among U.S. voters. In October last year, a poll of 1,400 voters by Hart Research and GS Strategy Group found that, "by a wide margin, voters of both political parties and in all regions of the U.S. disagree with Congress’ anti-Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agenda and support the EPA’s new rules to limit air pollution from coal-fired power plants." A whopping 88 percent of Democrats, 85 percent of Independents, and 58 percent of Republicans opposed Congressional attempts to delay implementation of the rules, and 79 percent of voters supported the rules due to health concerns about polluted air. “Regardless of affiliation, voters want a healthy environment and an end to foot-dragging to upgrade dirty power plants. Despite the rhetoric in Washington, clean air is not a partisan issue among Americans, and Congress would do well to take notice,” said Mindy Lubber, president of sustainability advocacy group Ceres, which sponsored the poll.

One might well ask why Congress does not seem to have so noticed, but we'll get to that in a moment.

Another poll by ORC International of 1,019 Americans, released in April this year and conducted by the non-partisan Civil Society Institute, found that 77 percent of Americans surveyed, including 65 percent of the Republicans, believe “the U.S. needs to be a clean energy technology leader and it should invest in the research and domestic manufacturing of wind, solar and energy efficiency technologies.” When given a choice between subsidizing either renewables or fossil fuels only, three times as many respondents chose renewables.

More significantly, respondents were clearly looking beyond their pocketbooks, even while struggling with high gasoline prices. More than two-thirds of respondents said that progress toward clean energy should not be 'put on hold' due to ongoing economic problems. Fully 76 percent of Republicans, 87 percent of Independents, and 91 percent of Democrats agreed with the statement "energy development should be balanced with health and environmental concerns," while only 13 percent said that "health and environmental concerns should not block energy development."

Two-thirds of respondents in the ORC International poll believe that "political leaders should help to steer the U.S. to greater use of cleaner energy sources - such as increased efficiency, wind and solar - that result in fewer environmental and health damages." But when framed as a jobs issue, rather than a health and environment issue, support zooms higher.

That conclusion came from a comprehensive analysis of international and U.S. polls on "the world's most pressing challenges," released in January by the Council on Foreign Relations' International Institutions and Global Governance program and worldpublicopinion.org. It found that 91 percent of Americans believed that investing in renewable energy was important for the U.S. to remain competitive on the global stage, and that 80 percent favored strong tax incentives for renewables as a way to cut dependence on foreign energy sources.

Further, it found that three-quarters of the American public believes the U.S. government "should assume that oil is running out and will need to be replaced as a primary source of energy," and that large majorities are worried about environmental damage, and the destabilizing effects of impending energy shortages and higher prices.

The same analysis found that clear majorities in all 27 members of the European Union approved of increasing the share of renewable energy to 20 percent or more by 2020, and believed that they would be personally affected by the consequences of energy dependence.

Two recent opinion polls in the UK support those conclusions, finding that a majority of the public see wind power subsidies as a good deal, and a large majority favor renewable energy in general. The nation's Renewables Obligation strategy (similar to the state Renewable Portfolio Standards in the U.S.) costs the average citizen about two pence per day, and most thought it a good value.

Australians are overwhelmingly in favor of renewables, too. A face-to-face poll of 14,000 Australians last year found that 91 percent of the public think the government should take more action to push for renewable power, and 86 percent are in favor of a plan to get to 100 percent renewables.

A new paper on the German Energy Transition found that support for nuclear power is fading across the continent, with only France, the Czech republic, and Poland still favoring it. Over 80 percent of Germans and 90 percent of Austrians are against nuclear power, but, the paper argues, this is not simply "the reaction of a spooked people to Fukushima." Germans have favored a transition to renewables since the early 1990s, "every political party says it's on board," and Germans are willing to pay higher energy bills to make it happen.

But they may not have to pay more, according to a study by the Fraunhofer Energy Alliance released in July 2011. As costs for solar PV continue to drop, the researchers predict that electricity generation in Germany would fall to 11 to 14 cents per kilowatt hour as early as 2016, or about one-third the current retail price of electricity. Another cited study, "Vision for a 100 percent renewable energy system," found that the cost of expanding renewable energy would peak in 2015, then sink; from 2010 to 2050, it projected an overall savings of 730 billion Euro.

Solar is already reducing electricity costs in Germany on a daily basis. A widely-circulated pair of graphs on the Renewables International site show that as the sun fires up solar systems around 9 am, the cost of "peak" power generation now crashes to around 35 Euro per megawatt hour, and stays there until around 6 pm. Just four years ago, peak power prices in Germany held firmly around 55 to 60 Euro over the same hours. As Australian journalist Giles Parkinson observed, "solar PV is not just licking the cream off the profits of the fossil fuel generators. . . it is in fact eating their entire cake."

Further, the net impact of energy transition would result in more jobs, and a greater benefit to the overall economy. "The negative impact of a shift to alternative energy is far outweighed by the remaining positive net effect of some 400,000 additional jobs in the EU as a whole," the Fraunhofer study says, and moreover, "Europe's GDP is expected to grow by 0.24 % (some 35 billion Euro)." Another cited study showed that transition to renewables would result in a net new 120,000 to 140,000 jobs, after "all negative effects and influences on the economic cycle are taken into account." Across the EU, some 2.8 million people are expected to find jobs in Europe's renewable energy sector by 2020.

The rise of the precautionary principle

The public has clearly become sensitized to the risks of producing fossil fuels from our remaining, increasingly marginal resources. The last several years have offered a handful of hard object lessons: The Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, and its lingering effects on the ecosystem, replete with the ongoing spectacle of eyeless shrimp, clawless crabs and fish with lesions. A series of reports about water contaminated by shale fracking activities, with tone-deaf industry responses. Small towns turned upside-down by the sudden influx of trucks and roughnecks drilling for shale oil and gas. Even nuclear power is now suspect after the specter of the Fukushima plant meltdown, with low levels of its radiation turning up in California a few days later.

Is it any surprise that the public is becoming risk-averse, and embracing renewables as never before?

An overwhelming majority of citizens now support the "precautionary principle": Rather than letting industry do whatever it wants and putting the burden on the public to prove that those activities are risky or damaging to the environment and the public health, voters would rather put the onus on industry to show that its activities are safe before being allowed to proceed.

As Steve Coll points out in his excellent new book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, the company has prosecuted a long war against the precautionary principle. He traces the popular rise of the concept back to the West German environmental movement of the 1970s, where it was known as Vorsorge (precaution). In his chapter on the ExxonMobil chemical division's fight to preserve the use of phthalates (plastic softeners) in children's toys, he cites a company slide deck claiming that "Politics, not science, is the reason" for a proposed ban on the chemicals, and observes that "'Politics,' however, was in fact a synonym for the rise of the precautionary principle as a popularly supported basis of chemical regulation in Europe—and there was little reason to believe that philosophy would remain sequestered there."

Indeed, it has not. The ORC International survey found that more than two-thirds of Americans, including 60 percent of Republicans, 76 percent of Independents, and 74 percent of Democrats, think the precautionary principle should guide our energy future. But ExxonMobil remains staunchly opposed. In an article in Fortune last month, CEO Rex Tillerson sneered that precautionary principle "will absolutely undermine the economy," adding, "If you want to live by the precautionary principle, then crawl up in a ball and live in a cave."

A political boomerang

The fossil fuel industry seems to believe that ratcheting up their rhetoric and blowing huge wads of cash on disinformation campaigns can tilt the odds back into their favor, but with enormous majorities of Western citizens now looking to renewables, I suspect those efforts will backfire.

One week ago, the Guardian broke a story about a confidential memo showing that a network of right-wing organizations in the U.S. were planning a national PR campaign to cause "subversion in message of industry so that [wind power] effectively because [sic] so bad that no one wants to admit in public they are for it." National advocacy groups funded by the fossil fuel industry, including several organizations backed by the oil and coal industry billionaire baron brothers Koch, were identified as the source. The documents suggested setting up "dummy businesses" to hide the backers of anti-wind billboards, and a "counter-intelligence branch" to dog the wind industry. Further, it called for creating a tax-exempt organization with paid staffers, backed by $750,000 in funding, to persuade the public against policies favorable to wind energy.

The majority of the free world now believes that climate change is a serious problem; a Yale study released in March found that two thirds of Americans believe the planet is warming. (However, as a testament to the effectiveness of the fossil fuel industry's disinformation campaigns thus far, just 46 percent believe that it's due to human activities, down four points from the previous study in November 2011.) Europeans and Australians have long been running far ahead of Americans on that issue.

Despite four ardent (and expensive) decades of campaigning by the fossil fuel industry, the majority also want an electricity supply powered by renewables, and believe that remaining on the fossil fuel path poses serious risks to health, security, the economy, and the environment. It's a modest stretch to suppose that that same majority increasingly understand that all of those issues are intrinsically intertwined.

At the same time, the Yale study found that on the global warming issue, the vast majority trust scientists; distrust the mainstream news media; distrust the oil, gas, coal, and auto companies; and distrust Mitt Romney.

It seems that money is no longer able to stop the energy transition juggernaut, at least in terms of public opinion. If our so-called representative governments actually represented us, we would have an all-out push to leave fossil fuels in the dust and build every last feasible kilowatt of renewable capacity ASAP. But they do not; they are beholden to their corporate donors. In the U.S., the fossil fuel industry still outspends the renewable industry in lobbying by about 12 to 1. "Legislative capture" is the reason why we continue to see Congress slap-fighting about a mere $4 billion in subsidies for the oil industry instead figuring out how to execute transportation transition. It's why we still don’t have a feed-in tariff, like everyone else in the world who are serious about energy transition do. It's why we haven't yet taken the bit of energy transition between our teeth and run with it.

But we will. We may have to wait until the dinosaurs of the fossil fuel regime die or are voted out of office before policymakers catch up with the public. In the meantime, we'll have to shift for ourselves, build as much renewable capacity as we can manage, and be content to throw popcorn at the TV when those glossy ads about jobs in the oil patch come on. We know better than to believe the claims of incipient energy independence. The longer our legislators defy the will of the people, the more they will lose our trust, and eventually, their lobbying support. The age of renewables is here. There is no turning back.

Photo: BP protest sign in New Orleans (derek_b/Flickr)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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