DPS poll/focus groups will be spun the other way, but this is what people said.
by Rob Roper
The Vermont Department of Public Services conducted a poll and a series of focus groups over this summer regarding state energy policy, specifically support for or opposition using more renewable energy. They just released the 87 page report on what they found out, Vermonters Weigh In: Public Opinion on Renewable Energy, and the results are interesting. Here’s what the data actually points to, and how it will be spun to say the opposite.
The most striking and unsurprising finding from the polling is that the factors Vermonters find very or somewhat important in an electricity source are, first and foremost, “affordablilty” (98%) followed closely by “reliability” (97%). Coming in third was “Impacts on natural resources like forests, rivers, and wildlife” (91%). When asked to pick just one factor as the most important, “affordability” blew away the competition at 29%. “Reducing carbon emissions” took on larger importance at 19% and “reliability” came in a close third at 17%.
Some of the factors that didn’t score so well in the generally important/most important questions: “Whether the source is renewable” 79%/8%, supporting jobs and economic development 91%/4%, and source produced in state 60%/1%.
So, to summarize, the kind of energy policy most Vermonters are looking for is affordable, reliable, and with the least possible amount of impact on our natural environment, such as forests, rivers, and wildlife. We don’t particularly care so much if it’s renewable, reduces carbon emissions, or is produced in state – albeit those attributes might be considered nice.
Needless to say (or maybe it needs to be said), this is the exact opposite of the state energy policy our elected lawmakers are imposing upon us, which is moving more and more into high-cost, less reliable, intermittent non-baseload wind and solar power that requires acres and acres of precious natural ridgeline and pasture lands, displacing natural habitats and, especially in the case of wind, threatening endangered species.
Now for those who do express favor for renewable energy, it’s easy to virtue signal support for it in theory, but the real question – one happily asked by the pollsters – is how much would you be willing to pay extra for said renewable power. And, according to the poll Vermonters say not much, and most preferably nothing at all.
Again, this sentiment is so far removed from the multi-billion-dollar price tag of the Global Warming Solutions Act one has to ask why do we keep electing the people we keep electing? But I digress.
Asked, “How much more would you be willing to pay [per month] for electricity if it meant that all of Vermont’s power came from renewable or low-carbon sources?” 31% of Vermonters said “nothing”. 17% refused to answer, which probably means they just didn’t want to sound like a skinflint in front of the pollster. 24% said somewhere between $1 and $25, 16% said somewhere between $26 and $50, and just 12% said they would pay more than $50 per month, which probably indicates they were just showing off for the pollster. If actually presented with an annual renewable energy fee in excess of $600 on their electric bill, I bet a big chunk of that 12% would freak out, and not in a happy way. But I admit I speculate.
In the focus groups sessions, where they conducted what looks like a crash course in Vermont energy policies sandwiched between before and after surveys to track changes in opinions based on learned information, there was an interesting revelation on this topic. Although the “after” survey showed a very modest drop in the number of people unwilling to pay anything from 18% to 15%, the overall dollar amount people were willing to pay dropped off sharply. “The median amount among participants who were willing to pay something actually went down compared to these participants’ initial responses, from $30 to $25.” (P.43)
Of note: what I don’t like about the way they asked this question is there is a huge difference between $1 and $25 a month — that’s $12 to $300 a year; very different – but these folks were statistically grouped together. Other surveys that have asked a similar question find that those willing to pay more for a “green” alternative tap out at about $10 a year. So, this overly wide net is certainly skewing higher the report’s conclusion of what the true median of what people would be willing to pay actually is. I do not think very many people, let alone 24%, would sign up to pay an extra $300 a year for electricity given a choice.
But even skewed up this much, these numbers will not come close to covering the bill for the energy mandates that exist in the Global Warming Solutions Act. So, if we are asking the question are Vermonters prepared to pick up the tab for the energy policies our elected leaders have signed us up for, the answer would be no. Absolutely not.
Here’s where the spin begins…. The report claims on page 16, “Renewable sources were most popular with Vermont residents. Solar led the way in terms of strong support (62%)….” There are problems with that statement, but it’s the spin you’re most likely to hear.
First problem, the ONLY options the respondents were asked about were renewable, except for nuclear. There were no options listed for the most affordable, reliable options with the smallest geographic footprint: fossil fuels.
A more accurate and truthful way of gaging public opinion would be to show respondents a full range of options, fossil and renewable, along with a true cost per kilowatt, a reliability score (baseload or not), a landscape/wildlife impact score, carbon emissions per kilowatt, and a renewability score, (for fun I’d add a “relies on components made with child/slave labor” from countries with traditionally marginalized populations” category, time and space permitting), and let them pick.
Additionally, the pollsters dishonestly put their thumb on the scale regarding the true cost of renewable electricity. On page 19 they explain (or rather explain away), “As acknowledged in the policy brief and the focus groups, the cost of electricity is a bit of a moving target. Historically, fossil fuels have been the most affordable option, but that is changing as state and federal policies create incentives for renewables and the increasing supply of renewables brings down their price in the market.”
“Incentives,” by which they mean taxpayer and/or ratepayer funded subsidies, do not lower the actual cost of renewable energy; they just shift part of that cost onto someone else. Usually someone down the income scale, which also flies in the face of what Vermonters surveyed say they want as part of our energy policy — equity. “Many focus group participants who were concerned about the cost of electricity cited concern for their lower-income neighbors, many of whom are struggling with rising costs for many other goods and services.” (P. 10) If that’s the case, aptly labeled “wealthfare” programs like net metering and subsidies for solar panels are not for you!
And last point I’ll make here, the report says on page 28, “Most participants preferred to place solar panels on existing residential and commercial buildings, or in parking lots or other spaces that were already developed. There was much less interest in solar in natural areas,” and “Similarly, we heard push back on wind, and offshore wind in particular, concerning impacts on wildlife.” This is, again, contrary to the energy policy vision our so-called representatives are putting forward in our names, which is pushing us toward large scale, industrial wind and solar.
So, when you inevitably hear the spin that a poll of 700 Vermonters concluded that solid majorities want to get our energy from renewable wind and solar sources, do know that that comes with some mighty big “ifs”. If it costs the same or less than fossil-based sources, if it’s reliable baseload power, if it doesn’t have a large impact natural resources and animal habitats, and if isn’t reliant on regressive taxes or fees to make it “affordable.” Which is a roundabout way of saying, no we don’t actually want an energy policy primarily based on renewable sources. At least not with the current technology.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics, robertroper.substack.com