Solar overwhelmingly popular in US, says Harvard scientist

A renowned Harvard political scientist has told an audience of climate scientists, physicist, economists and public-policy experts at the University of Chicago that the American public is overwhelmingly supportive of solar and wind energy.

Following a 12-year survey, Stephen Ansolabehere – a Harvard government professor – has concluded that the majority of Americans prefer renewable energy sources over coal, oil and nuclear energy, and see natural gas as a bridge fuel that falls between the two stools of renewables and dirtier fossil fuels.

The scientist’s findings were reported at the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago (EPIC). Ansolabehere told the audience how he began surveying Americans in 2001 on their energy preferences in response to scientists at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) calling on him to gauge public opinion on the U.S.’s climate change initiatives.

In the following 12 years, the scientist discovered that most Americans are instinctively in favor of solar and wind energy, but few grasp the true cost of the technology, and even fewer are generally willing to shoulder that perceived cost. The average American, Ansolabehere found, believes nuclear and oil to be more expensive than solar and wind – an optimism that needs to be handled carefully, said the scientist.

"The average member of the American public has the picture about right," he said. "People have the relative harms about right. People have the relative costs for traditional fuels about right. They’re way too optimistic about the cost of solar and wind, and the caution is that if you inform them, you’re going to get lower support."

However, despite misunderstanding the costs of solar power (costs that are creeping towards grid parity with every passing day), nearly 90% of Americans want to see more solar and wind energy added to the U.S. landscape.

"Americans want to move away from coal, oil and nuclear power and toward wind and solar. About 80% of Americans want renewables to increase a lot, an another 10% or so want it to increase somewhat," added Ansolabehere. This 90% figure will include a lot of natural Republicans, which suggests that even those ostensibly opposed to fighting climate change are inherently supportive of clean energy sources. "This is a non-partisan issue,” he said.

Nuclear no-show

According to leading engineers and scientists, the most surprising chapter of Ansolabehere’s results was the almost complete lack of support for nuclear power. Even among the Americans who admitted they worried not one jot about climate change, support for nuclear power was notably lacking.

MIT engineers – which in 2001 included current U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz – who tasked Ansolabehere with conducting the survey have been surprised by the lack of support for solar, having initially commissioned the study to gauge support for a domestic nuclear renaissance.

"People who were concerned about global warming did not want the technology that they were going to put forward [nuclear],” said Ansolabehere. "For the engineers, this was show-stopper."

And while the survey found that very few Americans are natural conservationists, ie, intent on consuming less energy, there are even fewer supporters of the Obama administration’s "all-of-the-above" approach to energy. For the coal, oil and nuclear industries, this could spell bad news: most citizens are mildly in favor of shale (fracked) gas, and back solar and wind because these technologies are non-polluting and pose no health risks, the study found.

"People think of solar and wind as relatively harmless, coal, oil and nuclear as harmful, and natural gas somewhere in between," said Ansolabehere.

Buck stops here

The scientist’s findings also concluded that people are willing to pay to stop climate change, but only up to around $5 per year. Ansolabehere stressed that these findings could have implications for policy makers, warning that any climate change measures introduced that will incur high costs will be met with scorn nationwide. "You can’t sell a 25% surcharge on your energy bill," he said. "You might be able to sell 5% or 6%."

Americans are not alone in holding this stance. Ansolabehere put the same question to citizens in other developed nations around the globe and received uniformly similar responses. "It’s a depressingly small number – 5% – about $5 on your electric bill, and it’s the same in the U.S., same in Sweden, same in France, same in Germany, same in Japan, same in Canada, et cetera."

Ansolabehere’s findings were published just days before California’s governor Jerry Brown called on the state’s utilities to boost renewable energy procurement by 50%, but to do so in a way that protects solar-friendly consumer electricity rates.

"Getting the policies right is critical to solar power’s continued growth and success," said California Solar Energy Industries Association executive director, Bernadette Del Chiaro.