Researcher talks American behaviors regarding energy consumption

Sunday, January 27, 2019 - 9:01pm

Lauren Knapp, Postdoctoral researcher at the U-M Energy Institute, talks about American attitudes toward renewable energy at Weill Hall Friday.

Lauren Knapp, Postdoctoral researcher at the U-M Energy Institute, talks about American attitudes toward renewable energy at Weill Hall Friday. Buy this photo
Max Kuang/Daily

Fifteen students, professors, researchers and community members gathered in Weill Hall Friday to listen to Lauren Knapp, a researcher at the Energy Institute, present discoveries on American behaviors and attitudes towards energy.


Due to the increasing effects of global warming, Knapp believes it is important for energy consumers to be informed about the varying types of alternative energy sources.

“Arguably one of the largest challenges in society today is the pressing need for deep, deep energy prioritization,” Knapp said.  


The research, coming from a five-year survey, showed consumer concerns about energy affordability have decreased, and concern regarding energy’s effect on the environment has increased significantly over the past five years.


For a little over five years, the Energy Institute has been working in collaboration with researchers at the Institute of Social Research (ISR), the world’s largest academic social science survey and research organization, to create an all-purpose study that looks into the human concern about the environmental impact of energy usage.


The two institutes developed energy-related questions to add to the University of Michigan Survey of Consumers, and in the fall of 2013, the Energy Survey was released.


The survey has run quarterly for five years, taking place in the fall, winter, spring and summer. Utilizing a random-digit dialing procedure, researchers gathered data from adult men and women respondents from all over the country. Approximately 500 households were asked a series of 18 questions regarding their attitudes toward energy.


John DeCicco, a research professor at the Energy Institute and director of the Energy Survey, said the survey really is a “psychology-based survey,” as it studies attitudes more than statistical data.


“We ask pretty broad questions about people's feelings about energy, it’s really about attitudes,” DeCicco said. “We ask how people feel about the cost of energy, or how affordable they feel it is. Then, we ask people about their thoughts on the reliability of energy and about the environmental impact of energy, or how much they think energy impacts the environment.”



Courtesy of Lauren Knapp


After five years of data, DeCicco, Knapp and Sarah Mills, senior project manager at the Ford School of Public Policy, began to analyze the array of feedback. Knapp specifically looked into the outpouring of responses in relation to the societal value that Americans place on coastal energy, transportation and nature-based infrastructure systems.


Within her findings, she looked into the social costs and benefits derived from the multitude of wind energy developments in the U.S.


Knapp then noticed that depending on one’s regional location, their concern toward energy on the environment varied. In a recent investigation done by the Pew Research Center, researchers found those living in coastal areas place greater importance on the problems associated with climate change. The study also found different energy prices and affordability programs might also play a role in this association.


DeCicco said the next question in the research would include how these findings will change human behavior.


“The next kind of question is does the concern for the environment translate in any way to them acting differently,” DeCicco said. “Is it a general concern where they don’t do anything about it. Or does it motivate them to change their behavior in some way?”


One of the behaviors consumers of certain utility companies are adopting is to pay an extra eight cents extra per kilowatt hour on their electric bills to get renewable energy. These include wind power or solar power alternatives provided by local utility companies. To DeCicco’s knowledge, there are no programs like this currently found in the state of Michigan.

So far, green pricing programs serve 597 counties across 24 states according to the researchers' PowerPoint. Some of the top green pricing utilities include Portland General Electric, PacifiCorp and Austin Energy.



Courtesy of Lauren Knapp


Knapp said consumer markets do not always allow the population to express concerns regarding green pricing programs.


“Not often are there markets for consumers to express the preference in these green pricing programs,” Knapp said. “In theory, we will be able to say, ‘I will pay five dollars more a month because it’s from wind and I value those climate protection services.’ But that is not necessarily always the case.”   


The analysis is now moving in the direction of validating consumers’ stated policy preference—what they would pay—with what they actually do or would pay (via green pricing programs) for renewables at the program level. If researchers know this information, they can essentially estimate the market among constituents for green power for a given X or Y proposed policy intervention, such as a carbon tax. There are no state taxes on carbon in the country.


Michael Lerner, Public Policy PhD candidate, hopes to apply this research to his own work relating to wind turbines as an alternative energy source.


“I am working on research on wind energy and where wind turbines are developed in America,” Learner said. “So understanding the locals’ attitudes toward wind and the way that we can set up pricing programs to get people interested and to support wind is really important in understanding how to create a utility system in America that addresses climate change.”

In the near future, Knapp plans to take her research to companies like DTE Energy in an effort to push for a change in public policy regarding the implementation of a green pricing program in Michigan.


“If state policymakers knew what their constituents would be willing to pay for green electricity, and see that information validated, that could be potentially quite informative for coming up with a policy to internalize electricity sector environmental externalities,” Knapp said.