Poll shows strong bipartisan support for renewable power among homeowners 

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, April 22, 2015

While Congress struggles to define the federal government’s role in promoting solar and wind power, American homeowners remain strongly supportive of federal tax credits and other subsidies for emissions-free electricity, according to recent polling done by the consulting firm Zogby Analytics.

The January survey of 1,400 homeowners, commissioned by Clean Edge Inc. and SolarCity, revealed that 74 percent of homeowners support continuing the investment tax credit (ITC) for solar power and the production tax credit (PTC) for wind energy, while nearly 9 in 10 homeowners believe renewable energy is important to the nation’s future.

But homeowner support for clean energy isn’t linked as strongly with environmentalism as it is with energy efficiency gains and cost savings, according to Zobgy’s findings, which follow up on a similar survey done in 2014. The margin of error for the new survey was 2.7 percentage points, officials said.

“There’s a misconception that the nation is divided on its attitudes toward clean energy, but our research shows this to be false,” Clean Edge Managing Director Ron Pernick said of the findings. “There is broad support for renewables across the political spectrum.”

And on some policy questions — such as whether utilities should impose fees and restrictions on home-based solar arrays — Republicans show stronger support for pro-renewables policies than Democrats.

Among all energy fuels, homeowners surveyed showed the greatest support for solar energy, with 50 percent saying that solar is among the most important resources for America’s energy future, followed by wind energy (42 percent) and natural gas (33 percent). By comparison, 17 percent of respondents identified oil and hydropower as important future resources, while nuclear power garnered 14 percent support.

Coal drew 8 percent support among polled homeowners, 2 percentage points below geothermal power and just ahead of biofuels and biomass at 7 percent.

Backers of the poll, including SolarCity co-founder and CEO Lyndon Rive, said yesterday on a webinar detailing the findings that the results reveal a widening gap between the positions of many elected officials and their constituents, thousands of whom are adopting solar power at unprecedented rates.

D.C. lobbyists dampen public support

Rive also said that conventional measures of renewables’ importance to the energy marketplace are skewed because the focus remains on the relatively small percentage that renewables like wind and solar occupy within the broad universe of energy sources rather than year-over-year capacity additions.

He noted, for example, that solar accounted for more than 35 percent of all new U.S. electricity generation capacity in the first three-quarters of 2014, compared to just 2 percent of capacity additions in 2009. By contrast, coal-fired power has seen virtually no growth over the last few years as the market for new power shifts increasingly to natural gas, wind and solar energy.

The shift appears even more dramatic when one considers that with solar, “you’re comparing a relatively new technology to one that has been around for years.” He predicted that by the end of the decade, solar could capture more than 50 percent of the market for new power. “Once consumers and businesses realize that [solar] costs less than what you pay for conventional energy, it becomes a no-brainer,” Rive added.

In fact, cost is the single greatest driver of clean energy adoption by homeowners, according to the survey, with 82 percent of respondents saying that saving money was a primary motivator behind making such investments. By comparison, 34 percent said that reducing environmental impacts was a primary motivator, while 32 percent said they invested in clean energy technologies and services to ease maintenance requirements.

That doesn’t mean Americans ignore environmental impacts when they make big-ticket purchases.

Twenty-eight percent of survey respondents said they weigh environmental concerns “always” or “most of the time” when purchasing a home, car or other expensive item. That compares to 32 percent who say they “rarely” or “never” factor the environment into such decisions, and 36 percent who say they “sometimes” weigh environmental concerns in purchasing decisions.

When asked about investments, 52 percent of respondents said they consider the social and environmental implications of their investments, while 74 percent said they would be inclined to invest in clean technologies if they offered a “potentially higher return than other options.” More than 60 percent said such investments would be compelling if they offered “equal or higher return than other options.”

Jonathan Zogby, CEO of Zogby Analytics, attributed some of the growing support for renewables to the technology’s rising visibility. Tens of thousands of new and existing homes are equipped with solar arrays every year, and commercial wind farms are becoming an everyday sight for millions of travelers in the Midwest, Great Plains and West.

“Solar and wind have moved beyond the esoteric to being both real and visible,” Zogby said. “As they’ve become more real, they’ve also become more accepted.”

But obstacles remain, the analysts said, including public perceptions that renewable energy is more expensive than conventional energy, as well as the strong lobbying power of traditional energy companies and some electric utilities in Washington, D.C.

Many utilities, for example, have resisted expanding rooftop solar programs due to concerns about how such distributed generation affects transmission and distribution networks, as well as worries about lost revenue from declining electricity sales.