In New Survey, Even Republicans Love Solar

on April 07, 2015 at 12:00 PM

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Renewable energy is often presented as hopelessly contentious in the United States, but there’s a new survey – or maybe we should say, there’s another survey – that shows Americans overwhelmingly believe in the stuff, have a sense it could save them money, and want government to support it.

Even Republicans.

Solar and wind finished one and two, respectively, when the polling firm Zogby Analytics asked a swath of American homeowners to name up to three forms of energy they felt were most important to the country’s future.

solarcity poll chart

The survey was conducted for the giant residential solar company SolarCity and the clean energy consultancy Clean Edge, which wrote the report on the findings.

“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 and report author Ron Pernick said in a statement. “There is broad support for renewables across the political spectrum.”

Pernick pointed in particular to one of today’s hottest energy policy issues, the question of utility fees for residential solar power systems. Rooftop solar reduces use of grid power; plus, in many states, system owners are reimbursed at the retail electricity rate for any surplus power they produce. Utilities say these folks who are taking advantage of solar “net metering” aren’t paying their fair share for grid upkeep – putting an added burden on those who haven’t gone solar, who are often less economically advantaged. On the flip side, solar advocates point to a wide range of public benefits from solar, and say the utilities are chiefly concerned with maintaining their stranglehold on the system.

By a 61-24 margin, those surveyed opposed solar fees, and “opposition is higher among Republicans (66%) than Democrats (59%),” Pernick said.

Of course, how a question is asked can go a long way in determining how it is answered. And in this survey backed by a solar company, it was impossible not to notice that the question on solar fees pointed out the benefits of more rooftop solar, while leaving out the utilities’ rationale for charging a fee:

“Some electric utility companies say that they should be allowed to charge rooftop solar owners a fee for connecting their solar systems to the grid. Many solar supporters say there should be no additional fee since they are increasing the use of renewables and reducing utility company costs during peak- use periods when demand is highest and electricity prices increase. Do you support or oppose electric utility companies being able to charge an additional fee to solar powered homes and businesses?” 

The survey also tackled the issue of federal tax support for renewable energy. The solar industry is lobbying to hang on to a 30 percent investment tax credit, and the wind industry is seeking a revival of their recently lapsed production tax credit. Zogby asked:

“In recent years, federal tax credits have enabled both the solar and wind industries to expand, with solar and wind both more than doubling their generation over the past five years. Do you agree or disagree that the federal government should continue to offer such incentives?” 

Overall, 74 percent of survey participants agreed, with Democrats (82%) more likely than Republicans (67%) to back the renewable energy incentives. Would those numbers, particularly for the Republicans, have been lower if the question had been more balanced – if, for instance, it had pointed out that those federal incentives are expected to cost the Treasury a total of about $30 billion between 2013 and 2017, according to the Congressional Research Service?

Actually, maybe not. Just a few months ago, Resources For the Future, Stanford University and the New York Times did a poll [PDF] that asked about a long list of energy subsidies. The questions began, “For each of the following, please tell me whether you favor or oppose it as a way for the federal government to try to reduce future global warming. Each of these changes would increase the amount of money that you pay for things you buy.” When it came to “giving companies tax breaks to produce more electricity from water, wind, and solar power,” 80 percent favored the tax breaks, and only 19 percent were opposed.

Virtuous as that sounds, SolarCity/Clean Edge said that when it came to home solar, the hope for a smaller energy bill was the most powerful potential motivator: 64 percent called that an “attribute” that would have a “high impact” on their decision to install a system, whereas just 35 percent pointed to the environmental angle.

About the survey methodology: Zogby said it was conducted online. “Thousands of U.S. adults were invited by Zogby Analytics to participate in this interactive survey. The field of participants was narrowed down to only include homeowners. Invitations were password-coded and secure so respondents could only access the survey one time. Based on a confidence interval of 95%, the margin of error for the survey of 1,400 homeowners is +/- 2.7 percentage points. All interviews were completed between January 20 and January 22, 2015.”