Funny thing about Americans. We’ve got strong opinions about what’s wrong with energy, especially when gasoline prices rise, but our passion tends to exceed our understanding.
Polling indicates we hold strong sentiments about energy independence and renewables. Yet key details elude us.

More than half of Americans cannot name one type of renewable energy and nearly 40 percent can’t identify a fossil fuel, according to New York-based research organization Public Agenda. Many wrongly think the US gets most of its oil from the Middle East, and few realize that it will be years before green energy makes up a large portion of our resource mix.

Even when there is money on the table, we are often oblivious. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that less than 20 percent of Americans know important details about energy efficiency rebates, tax credits, and other incentives available to them.

Big, controversial energy news passes us by. Half of the population is unaware of TransCanada’s Keystone XL project, according to a Yale University and George Mason University study, despite the uproar over President Obama’s decision to deny the project a presidential permit in January.

What are we Talking About?

Yet bring up global warming at a party and watch the opinions fly. (More than two-thirds of Americans say the US should make either a large-scale or medium-scale effort to reduce global warming, according to the Yale/George Mason study.)

“We are having all of these big political debates over fossil fuels and a good portion of the population doesn’t even know what they are talking about,” said Jean Johnson, a senior fellow at Public Agenda and author of the book, “Who Turned Out the Lights?”

It’s not surprising really; voters are distracted and few have the time or interest to delve into energy complexities. The ailing economy looms as a larger preoccupation.

“They have busy lives. They are not sitting over EIA [US Energy Information Administration] books looking at statistics,” said Rayola Dougher, senior economic advisor for the American Petroleum Institute, which has a Vote4Energy media campaign underway.

As energy becomes politicized this lack of understanding makes the electorate increasingly malleable to the sound bite and easily swayed on issues that have significant economic and environmental ramifications, according to Public Agenda, which recently published a citizens energy guide.

This tendency to waffle comes at a particularly bad time. The energy industry is undergoing vast changes that will affect the country for decades; it wants consistent policy and direction before making large investments – and for good reason.

“With energy decisions, it takes a long, long, long time to see a result. A power plant lasts 40 to 50 years. They are huge and expensive. You don’t build them every day. Even in terms of oil exploration – you don’t just find it in Alaska, and we have it in our car tomorrow,” Johnson said.

The problem is further exasperated by the tendency of political parties and special interest groups to reduce energy to simple black and white arguments that draw passion. Those who propose complex solutions find it difficult to be heard above the din.

Forget Nuance

Former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter discovered this firsthand when his administration embraced both renewable energy and natural gas. During Ritter’s campaign for Governor, he appeared in a commercial with a wind farm, so therefore was perceived as anti-fossil fuel – even though he wasn’t.

“What we were trying to do was promote a variety of resources. Wind was probably the biggest beneficiary, but our agenda was about clean energy broadly, including natural gas,” said Ritter, who served as governor from 2007 to 2011 and is now director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.

His image as anti-fossil fuel grew as he pushed for stiffer extraction rules for the natural gas industry. But later, when Ritter signed a bill that expanded the market for natural gas by shutting down coal-fired plants, people did not know how to peg him.

“We had said all along that we were in favor of this industry [natural gas] surviving and even thriving. But because we were stubborn about the extraction process being environmentally sound, we got slotted into another place,” Ritter said. “It became very difficult to communicate a message that people understood. The mindset is that you are either an environmentalist or an industry person.”

So in an age when the sound bite trumps nuance, what’s the trick to educating voters about energy? See the upcoming Part II of Breaking Energy’s series “Raising the Energy IQ of the Electorate.”