October 4, 2016

The Politics of Climate

2. Public opinion on renewables and other energy sources

Americans’ concerns about climate change have put energy production of fossil fuels and the carbon gases these fuels emit at the center of public discussions about climate and the environment. Those debates coupled with long-standing economic pressures to decrease reliance on other countries for energy needs have raised attention to renewable forms of energy including solar and wind power.

Public opinion about energy issues is widely supportive of expanding both solar and wind power but more closely divided when it comes to expanding fossil fuel energies such as coal mining, offshore oil and gas drilling, and hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas. While there are substantial party and ideological divides over increasing fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources, strong majorities of all party and ideology groups support more solar and wind production.

Most Americans know the U.S. is producing more energy today

Most Americans are aware of America’s ongoing energy boom. The United States is producing more energy from fossil fuels and has ticked up production of renewable sources such as wind and solar. A large majority of Americans (72%) say the United States is producing more energy than it did 20 years ago. Far smaller shares say the U.S. is producing the same level (17%) or less energy (10%) than it did 20 years ago8

Majorities across demographic, educational and political groups say the U.S. is producing more energy today. Awareness of this trend is especially high among those with postgraduate degrees (86% compared with 64% among those with high school degrees or less). Men are more inclined to say the U.S. is producing more energy than women (79% vs. 66%), while Democrats are modestly more likely than Republicans to say this (79% vs. 65%).

Strong public support for more wind and solar, closer divides over nuclear and fossil fuels

Large majorities of Americans favor expanding renewable sources to provide energy, but the public is far less supportive of increasing the production of fossil fuels, such as oil and gas, and nuclear energy.

Fully 89% of Americans favor more solar panel farms, just 9% oppose. A similarly large share supports more wind turbine farms (83% favor, 14% oppose).

By comparison, the public is more divided over expanding the production of nuclear and fossil fuel energy sources. Specifically, 45% favor more offshore oil and gas drilling, while 52% oppose. Similar shares support and oppose expanding hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” for oil and gas (42% favor and 53% oppose). Some 41% favor more coal mining, while a 57% majority opposes this.

And, 43% of Americans support building more nuclear power plants, while 54% oppose. Past Pew Research Center surveys on energy issues, using somewhat different question wording and survey methodology, found opinion broadly in keeping with this new survey. For example, the balance of opinion in a 2014 Pew Research Center survey about building more nuclear power plants was similar (45% favor, 51% oppose), and some 52% of Americans favored and 44% opposed allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling in that survey.

Most Republicans and Democrats favor expanding renewables; there are strong divides over expanding fossil fuels

Across the political spectrum, large majorities support expansion of solar panel and wind turbine farms. Some 83% of conservative Republicans favor more solar panel farms; so, too, do virtually all liberal Democrats (97%). Similarly, there is widespread agreement across party and ideological groups in favor of expanding wind energy.

Consistent with past Pew Research Center surveys, this new survey finds there are deep political divides over expanding fossil fuel energy sources. Conservative Republicans stand out from other party and ideology groups in this regard At least seven-in-ten conservative Republicans support more coal mining (73%), fracking (70%) and offshore drilling (76%). A majority of Democrats oppose expanding each of these energy sources while moderate/liberal Republicans fall somewhere in the middle on these issues.

The political divide over expanding nuclear energy is smaller. Some 57% of conservative Republicans, and 51% of all Republicans, favor more nuclear power plants. Democrats lean in the opposite direction with 59% opposed and 38% in favor of more nuclear power plants.

As also found in past Pew Research Center surveys, women are less supportive of expanding nuclear power than men, even after controlling for politics and education. Some 34% of women favor and 62% oppose more nuclear plants. Men are more closely divided on this issue: 52% favor and 46% oppose. Men and women hold more similar views on other energy issues.

Many Americans are giving serious thought to having solar panels at home

America’s solar power industry is growing. In 2016, solar is expected to add more electricity generating capacity than any other energy source in the United States. Just 4% of Americans report having home solar panels but many more − 37% − say they are giving it serious thought.

These figures are similar among homeowners. Some 44% of homeowners have already installed (4%) or have given serious thought to installing (40%) solar panels at home.

Western residents and younger adults are especially likely to say are considering, or have installed, solar panels at home. Some 14% of homeowners in the West have installed solar panels at home and another 52% say they are considering doing so. By contrast, 35% of homeowners in the South say they have installed (3%) or given serious thought to installing solar at home (33%).

Some 55% of homeowners under age 50 say they have given serious thought to installing or have already installed solar panels at home. Fewer homeowners ages 50 and older say the same (36%).

The key reasons people cite for considering solar are financial followed by concern for the environment. Among all who have installed or given serious thought to installing solar panels, large majorities say their reasons include cost savings on utilities (92%) or helping the environment (87%). Smaller shares of this group, though still majorities, say improved health (67%) or a solar tax investment credit (59%) are reasons they have or would install home solar panels.

  1. Pew Research Center in 2014 asked a related question – whether the amount of energy produced in the United States had been increasing, decreasing or staying the same in recent years. In that survey, 54% of Americans said the amount of energy produced had been increasing, while 27% said it had been staying the same and 10% said it had been decreasing.