Most Americans Improving Energy Efficiency at Home

While oil prices rise in response to unrest in oil producing nations and increased demand from growing nations, Americans continue to discuss and consider alternative energy options and lifestyle changes amidst a slow economic recovery. Six in 10 (61 percent) Americans describe themselves as knowledgeable about energy issues, including sources of electrical power and energy efficiency. This is relatively unchanged since 2009 when 59 percent of Americans described themselves as knowledgeable about energy issues.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 3,171 adults surveyed online between February 14 and 21, 2011 by Harris Interactive.

Energy knowledge varies by region and age with Americans in the East (67 percent) and West (64 percent) and those over the age of 65 (65 percent) most knowledgeable. Three-quarters of men (75 percent) say they are knowledgeable about energy issues while less than half (47%) of women say the same.

Sources of Energy for Electric Power Production

When it comes to sources of energy, the public indicates that the benefits outweigh the risks for wind (75 percent) and solar power (77percent). Natural gas (64 percent) and geothermal (52 percent) resonate as beneficial while there is less certainty about the benefits of nuclear (42 percent) and coal (38 percent).  These views compare to 2009 when at least two-thirds of Americans said that when used, the benefits of solar (82 percent), wind (78 percent) and natural gas (66 percent) outweighed any associated risks.

In 2009, two in five Americans (42 percent) said the risks of using coal outweighed the benefits while 36 percent believed the benefits outweighed the risks. Further, almost one-quarter of Americans (22 percent) said they were not at all sure. Today, that view has not changed very much as 38 percent say benefits outweigh risks, but 43 percent believe the risks outweigh the benefits; those unsure has dropped to 19 percent.

Nuclear power plant proposals, after a U.S. hiatus on new plant construction, have been surging. Less than half of Americans (42 percent) say the benefits outweigh the risks of nuclear energy while 21 percent are not at all sure and 37 percent say the risks outweigh the benefits. In 2009, the view was similar - 44 percent of Americans said the benefits outweighed the risks and 34 percent believed the risks outweighed the benefits. When asked about nuclear power plant waste, 69 percent of Americans agree that it is a national issue. Two in 10 (22 percent) are not at all sure.

When asked if renewable energy and climate change are issues states should manage as opposed to the federal government, Americans are split – 36 percent agree these are issues for individual states to handle, 43 percent disagree and 21 percent are not at all sure.

Improving Energy Efficiency at Home

Eight in 10 Americans (84 percent) say they turn off lights and appliances when not in use to conserve energy. Americans are also replacing incandescent bulbs with fluorescent bulbs (60 percent), using power strips (60 percent), using low-wattage bulbs (56 percent), purchasing Energy Star™ appliances (53 percent), and reducing hot water usage (51 percent). When it comes to more complex tasks such as weather stripping, sealing gaps and installation of products, the responses drop to between 29 percent and 38 percent for each behavior. Even fewer (11 percent) conduct home energy evaluations or audits and 5 percent say they engage in none of these activities.

Smart Grid

More than half of all Americans (56 percent) have not heard the term "smart grid," with more than six in ten women unfamiliar with it (66 percent, compared to 46 percent of men).

When asked whether or not "smart grid" will increase the use of solar, wind and other renewable sources, only 38 percent agree that it will while 55 percent are not at all sure.  Likewise, six in 10 Americans (60 percent) are not at all sure if "smart grid" will increase the cost of electricity—24 percent agree that it will.

So What?

Over the past few years, there have been coal mine rescues; state legislation to prohibit mountain top mining of coal; and, increasing Environmental Protection Agency regulatory actions on coal plants. Coal provides approximately half (49 percent) of electrical power production in the United States, is the most heavily used source of energy and is being subjected to a high degree of regulatory scrutiny. It is estimated that 16 percent of the existing U.S. coal plant will be shut down over the next five years because of the cost of regulatory compliance. The question is – what will replace coal, especially in the eastern U.S.?

This survey fielded prior to the recent Japanese earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear power plant issues. U.S. nuclear power plants are similar in design and function to those in Japan so it is unclear what effect the Japanese incident will have on American perceptions of nuclear power. But, this poll makes clear that Americans believe nuclear waste is a national issue to resolve.

However, there remains limited knowledge of many alternative energy sources, as new debates over national security and foreign oil dependence, gas prices at the pump and the correlation between energy costs and economic recovery rage on. Significant room still exists to educate the public on the pros and cons of each source of energy including factors such as: current and future use of each source, reliability, cost, environmental impacts, safety, security and ways to become more energy efficient.