We Need to Talk About Energy Alternatives

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Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailSixty-one percent of Americans believe they’re knowledgeable about energy issues, including sources of electrical power and energy efficiency, but more than half have never heard the term “smart grid,” according to a Harris Interactive poll released today.

Americans older than 65 claim to be the most knowledgeable about energy, and 75 percent of men believe they have a grasp of energy issues. Only 47 percent of women say the same. Overall, the public indicates that benefits outweigh risks for wind (75 percent), solar power (77 percent), natural gas (64 percent) and geothermal (52 percent). Americans are less certain about the benefits of nuclear (42 percent) and coal (38 percent). Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe that nuclear waste disposal is a national issue The survey was conducted before the catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant.

Eight in ten Americans (84 percent) say they turn off lights and appliances when not in use to conserve energy. Americans are also replacing incandescent bulbs with fluorescent bulbs (60 percent), using power strips (60 percent) and low-wattage bulbs (56 percent), purchasing Energy Star appliances (53 percent) and reducing hot water usage (51 percent). They’re much less likely to take on more complex tasks such as weather stripping, sealing gaps and installing energy-efficient products. Even fewer—a mere 5 percent--conduct home energy evaluations or audits.

Because most Americans have never heard the term 'smart grid,' it’s not surprising that only 38 percent believe it would increase the use of solar, wind and other renewable sources. Twenty-four percent believe that smart grids would cause electricity costs to rise.

“Coal provides approximately half (49 percent) of electrical power production in the United States, is the most heavily used source of energy and is being subjected to a high degree of regulatory scrutiny.” Jeanne Bonds, senior director for energy and utilities at Harris Interactive, states. “It is estimated that 16 percent of the existing U.S. coal plant will be shut down over the next five years because of the cost of regulatory compliance. The question is – what will replace coal, especially in the eastern U.S.?”

Because Americans’ knowledge of alternative energy sources remains limited, Bonds sees a need for more education on the pros and cons of each energy source, including factors such as current and future use, reliability, cost, environmental impacts, safety, security and ways to become more energy efficient.