Pennsylvanians want more electricity to come from renewable sources

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- There is broad public support among Pennsylvania residents for increased renewable-energy generation, according to a study recently conducted by researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

The research found that Pennsylvanians rate hydropower, solar electricity and wind power highest among electricity generation technologies, followed by nuclear power and natural gas. The results indicate that the average Pennsylvania household is willing to pay an extra $55 per year to increase renewable-energy production by an amount equal to 1 percent of Pennsylvania electricity consumption.

The study, "Pennsylvanians' Attitudes Toward Renewable Energy," was conducted by Clare Hinrichs, associate professor of rural sociology, and Richard Ready, professor of agricultural and environmental economics, with assistance from doctoral students John Eshleman and James Yoo. The project was funded by a grant from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a legislative agency of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

"The dominant message that came across was that there is broad support for increasing the amount of renewable energy production in the state, and there is broad support for the state taking an active role in encouraging that," Ready said. "The majority of Pennsylvanians support strengthening the state's alternative-energy portfolio standard that mandates that a certain amount of electricity comes from renewable sources."

Ready noted that researchers were surprised they did not find a single group of respondents who disagreed.

"We came into it thinking that there might be some people who are politically conservative or less concerned about the environment who would be less supportive, but even the politically conservative respondents supported increasing renewable energy," he said. "There are people who are skeptical of global warming, for example, but even they wanted more renewable electricity and wanted the state to be active in supporting renewable generation. To a certain extent, it surprised me that the support was so broad-based."

To learn more about rural and urban Pennsylvanians' attitudes on renewable energy, their views on the impacts of renewable-energy-generation facilities and their willingness to pay for renewable energy, the researchers conducted initial focus-group interviews, a mail survey and case study focus groups in five rural communities in 2010 and 2011.

The two initial focus-group sessions were conducted in 2010 in Huntingdon and Pittsburgh and provided background information for the mail survey. The surveys were mailed to 1,600 Pennsylvania residents and yielded a 50.4 percent response rate.

The case study focus groups included a community with an established wind-energy operation, a community where a new wind-energy operation had been proposed, a community with an established biomass-energy operation and a community with a proposed biomass-energy operation.

A fifth community, with no existing or known proposed utility-scale renewable-energy operation, was used as a "control" community.

The survey data indicated that Pennsylvania residents prefer some electricity technologies over others. Hydropower, solar electricity, wind power and "improved efficiency" were all highly rated by respondents. Nuclear power and natural gas were rated next highest.

Biomass combustion, conventional coal, and coal with carbon capture and sequestration came next. Waste coal was the lowest-ranked technology.

Among renewable sources for generating electricity, Pennsylvanians have a low regard for burning biomass, Ready said. "When we had them rate the renewable technologies, there really wasn't much difference, they were all equally highly rated -- with the exception of burning biomass," he explained.

"Biomass combustion is a renewable technology, but it was rated as having a less-positive impact then solar, wind and hydro. That was very clear. We found consistently that respondents preferred the technologies that don't involve emissions."

Respondents indicated that the Tier 1 requirements of the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, which require that 8 percent of Pennsylvania electricity come from renewable and other alternative sources by the year 2020, is good policy for the state and supported increasing the requirements above what is required by current law.

The survey results also showed that Pennsylvania residents favor increasing the percentage of electricity generated from renewable sources, even if such an increase will cost them money.

According to the survey results, the average household in Pennsylvania was willing to pay $55 more per year to increase wind and other renewable production (excluding biomass combustion) by an amount equal to 1 percent of total electricity use in the state. Residents indicated they were willing to pay $42 more per year to increase solar generation by the same amount.

The average household was not willing to pay anything to increase electricity production from biomass combustion.

Several common themes emerged from the case study communities, researchers noted. One was the idea of "energy independence," which tended to be the first benefit of renewable energy that participants chose to mention. Another was the participants' natural interest in energy efficiency and conservation as an energy strategy deserving greater individual, household, community and state attention.

Respondents said they also were concerned about the general absence of a sound, long-term, comprehensive energy policy at the state or federal level.

For job impacts, the respondents rated natural gas and conventional coal highest, which suggests that the respondents understood the importance of these two resources for employment in the state, according to Ready.

Based on the these results, the researchers developed several considerations for policymakers:

-- Policymakers should consider more nonpolluting technologies when developing policies that will affect the mix of energy sources available to Pennsylvania residents.

-- If future modifications of proportional targets in the state's Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard are considered, policymakers should consider including more electricity from renewable sources.

-- Concern about the job impacts of the state's energy policy and tendencies to see natural gas and coal as the energy technologies having the most positive impact on jobs suggest the need for careful and accurate job and workforce projections associated with both renewable and nonrenewable energy sector development.
 

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Last Updated August 31, 2012