John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
More results from our State of the City poll.
It's easy for people to say they support renewable energy. But if their eagerness to be green meant spending more money, would they really?
More than 1,600 Americans were asked just that in the Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll—as well as a few other questions about energy use—and their responses show that there's a significant divide when it comes to a willingness to pay higher costs for a more sustainable power supply. It turns out the most die-hard fans of kicking fossil fuels can be found, perhaps in no great surprise, among the youngest Americans, the most educated, and those who identify as Democrats.
Respondents were specifically asked if they'd prefer their home's energy to derive from renewable sources like solar and wind power, rather than coal and natural gas, even if it meant their electricity bills would increase. One of the starkest disagreements on this matter pops up in the political realm: 52 percent of Republicans said no, compared to 32 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of independents.
Those numbers nicely complement a 2012 survey indicating that two-thirds of Democrats view climate change as a "major threat" versus a quarter of Republicans. They also reflect another State of the City finding that denizens of the Republican-leaning South are less willing to pay for renewable energy (45 percent) than those in the Democratic-voting West (30 percent). Interestingly, there were no significant differences among urban and non-urban folks: Both groups were about 50 percent amenable to potentially paying for greener energy.
Younger adults across the board were more likely to agree that paying more for renewable energy is worth it: 60 percent of people aged 18 to 34 responded affirmatively. Older generations found that commitment more distasteful, with roughly 44 percent of those 50 and above agreeing. (People older than 65 said they "didn't know" almost three times more often as youngsters). And college graduates were more likely to open their wallets for renewable energy than people with a high-school education or less.
Women also appear to be more open-minded on the subject than men. Forty-four percent of male poll-takers said they wouldn't shell out additional cash for solar or wind energy, compared to 36 percent of women.
State of the City interviewers also queried Americans for their opinions on two different, weather-related energy issues. First, they wanted to know how often people lost their power during bad weather. One of the starkest divides here proved to be regional, with 38 percent of Southerners complaining about frequent or intermittent outages but only 21 percent of Westerners saying the same. Though the reasons for this difference might be complex, no doubt regional climates play a part: The South is routinely hammered with thunderstorms, tornadoes, and the occasional hurricane, whereas the most violent weather in many parts of the West is either drizzle or pesky UV rays. (Although the ongoing drought is certainly making people worried about the reliability of electric plants.)
The city environment also seems to act as a buffer against blackouts: Urban residents were more likely to say they never have outages than non-urban ones.
State of the City additionally wanted to know how much confidence Americans have in their public utilities keeping up good service during severe weather. Here the results show a racial divide: more than 90 percent of whites voiced a lot or some confidence in utilities quickly repairing electric and water outages, significantly more than both blacks (81 percent) and Hispanics (75 percent). Hispanics were a full three times more inclined to blast utilities with votes of little-to-no confidence, and blacks more than two times, compared to relatively satisfied whites.
And because money plays a role in almost everything in this country—including how the brain works—income also colors people's confidence in public utilities. A mere 7 percent of people with salaries above $75,000 expressed little or no confidence in utilities, more than twice that of earners in the $30,000-and-under range.