Where energy is concerned, Americans are at least as worried about the environmental repercussions as they are about cost.

That is among the findings of a newly-launched quarterly survey being conducted by the University of Michigan’s Energy Institute together with the university’s Institute for Social Research.

The social-research institute already produces the monthly Survey of Consumers. The new energy survey will be included four times a year as a rider on the consumer survey. Data from the monthly survey of a nationally representative sample of 500 U.S. households are included in the Leading Indicator Composite Index, published by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The U-M Energy Survey, as it’s known, is comprised of 18 questions that target peoples’ opinions and feelings about the cost, reliability and environmental repercussions of energy. Energy is a hotly-debated topic in this country, and John DeCicco said it seemed like some scientifically-rigorous opinion data from a disinterested research outfit could prove useful. DeCicco is a research professor at the energy institute and one of the creators of the new survey template.

‘Objective and non-leading nature’

Surveys on energy-related topics tend to be conducted by people “who have an interest one way or another in certain technologies,” DeCicco said. “We wanted to step back from the issues of the day and development an instrument to look in a basic way at the public’s views.”

The university’s longstanding and ongoing monthly consumer survey provided an ideal resource on which to piggyback some questions about energy, CeCicco said.

“We saw an opportunity to build on a powerful survey tool the University has had for many years.” The consumer survey has been running since the 1940s.

DeCicco said there is no survey like this one, and he expects that “because of its objective and non-leading nature, it should be of broad interest to people in the business of energy, and policymakers. We are offering it up as a social-science resource.”

The results

The survey team rolled out its 18 questions for the first time in phone calls made in October, 2013.

“One of the more interesting things we found was a difference in sensitivities to the cost of home energy versus the cost of gasoline,” DeCicco said. Surveyors asked respondents how high prices would have to go before they would feel energy was “unaffordable.”

Home energy bills would have to increase by about 170 percent – nearly tripling, that is – before respondents, on average, said they would feel a pinch. The comparable figure for gasoline was only 85 percent.

Another of the survey’s more intriguing findings was that even more survey respondents expressed “a great deal or fair amount” of concern about environmental damage from energy than did about the cost of energy. The figures were 60 and 55 percent, respectively. Only 31 percent of respondents were that worried about the reliability of energy.

The questionnaire also asks respondents how much they expect their energy bills to grow. On average, the 500 respondents said they expected their home-energy bills to increase by about 30 percent over the next five years. The projections varied with the region of the country. Westerners expected their bills to grow by 40 percent. Midwesterners expected only a 25 percent spike.

Another question asked whether people generally reduced energy use for reasons of cost. Nearly half of the respondents said they did so, with the percentage at 38 percent of the most-wealthy respondents, and 59 percent of the least-wealthy.

Also, people who claimed to know more about energy matters reported more energy conservation than did those who claimed to know little about energy.

Asked whether they made a habit of reducing their energy use for environmental reasons, about 44 percent of respondents said they always or often did so. Those claiming to be familiar with energy issues reported more efforts to reduce energy use than did those who claimed to know little.

Asked what aspect of the environment was most impacted by energy use, 42 percent said it was air quality, 24 percent said it was climate change, 16 identified water quality and another 16 voted for personal health.

DeCicco declined to speculate about how the quarterly survey results might impact public policy or business decisions. Rather, he said, “I think having good data is going to be useful in informing thinking.”

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

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