Opponents of renewable energy often attack solar and wind power for being more expensive, believing that coal and natural gas are simply too cheap not to burn. But a new study shows that not only do most Americans support clean energy, they’re willing to pay $162 more each year in electricity bills if it means more of the country’s power comes from wind and solar power plants.
The germ of this study came from President Obama’s State of the Union speech in 2011, when he called for Congress to pass a clean energy standard that would require 80 percent of the country’s power to come from clean energy sources by 2035. The idea caught the attention of Matthew Kotchen, one of the study’s three authors. At the time he wondered, “What does clean energy actually mean, and is there support for it?”
Kotchen’s a professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, which also houses the school’s project on climate change communication. The project regularly surveys Americans about their views on climate change, and with the help of its director, Anthony Leiserowitz, Kotchen developed and added questions to the survey about this particular issue. Survey participants were asked if they supported or opposed a clean energy standard, which was presented in one of three ways: as promoting renewables alone, renewables and natural gas, or renewables and nuclear power. Participants were also told the standard would increase their annual household electricity bill; the dollar figure they were given varied randomly from $5 to $155 per year, in increments of $20.
In almost every combination, no matter how the survey defined clean energy or how much clean energy cost, the majority of respondents supported the clean energy standard. People were more enthusiastic about a standard that supported renewables alone than one that also supported natural gas or nuclear. And the more it cost, the less enthusiastic they were: The study characterizes the trend as a "modest decline in support as costs increase." But the researchers could say that, on average, Americans were willing to accept a 13 percent hike in their electricity bills, paying $162 more per year.
Kotchen and his colleagues weren’t only interested in the average American, though. They were interested in whether Congress would pass legislation putting in place this kind of standard. And so they used at a technique common in political science and economics to predict how legislators will vote on a policy. They looked at the median voter in each state and district; if that median voter was more likely to support a policy than not, the researchers assumed that the representative or senator would vote for the policy. Using that model, they found that, in this Congress, a clean energy standard that raised electricity costs $162 a year would not pass. To pass at all, they found, the standard would have to cost the average household much less. To pass the Senate, it could only add $59 to annual electricity costs. To pass the House, it could only add $48.
The reason that for this drop is simple: Republicans don’t support the policy. The survey research showed that, when predicting who will support a clean energy standard, "political party matters a lot," says Kotchen. The result is that there’s a huge difference in what the average American is willing to pay to support clean energy and what Americans as represented in Congress are willing to pay to support clean energy.
"If you're interested in climate change and energy policy in the United States, one of the take homes is, coming up on an election year, it's really important who gets elected," Kotchen says. "Just changing the House and Senate by a few members makes a huge difference in whether policies like this are likely to pass or not."