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What value energy polls?

Public support for fracking is at an all-time low according to the UK Government’s Wave 23 Energy and Climate Change Public Attitude Tracker:

“Support for fracking is at its lowest point since the tracker began asking respondents about their opinions on the subject…  The most common reason for opposing fracking was the loss or destruction of natural environment (64%). Other commonly cited reasons included a view there is too much risk and uncertainty (30%), the risk of contamination to water supplies (28%), that it is generally not a safe process (25%), and that there is a risk of earthquakes (23%).”

These, of course, were the reasons that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy researchers included in their questionnaire.  The objection that, like its counterpart in the USA, the UK shale gas industry is a financialised Ponzi scheme designed to make its owners vast profits by fleecing investors and public authorities was, understandably, not included in the questionnaire.

Wave 23 also showed a record high public support for renewable energy, with 82 percent in favour and just three percent opposed:

“Support for a range of renewable energy developments remained high: 84% of respondents said they supported solar energy, 79% supported both off-shore wind and wave and tidal, 74% supported on-short wind, and 69% supported biomass.”

This contrasted with 33 percent support for and 25 percent opposition to nuclear power (40 percent were neutral).

Mass media was predictably overjoyed about the support for renewables.  Thomas Tamblyn in the Huffington Post was typical:

“The UK public’s support for renewable energy has reached yet another consecutive high with a staggering 82% in favour and just 1% now strongly opposed to the idea of green energy.”

But what, in reality, does this do for us?

The problem with this kind of survey is that there is no downside to the answers that respondents give.  This doesn’t matter too much to the government researchers, since their only purpose is to gauge shifts in public attitudes.  However, the rest of us should be cautious when reading too much into public attitudes… after all; we humans are extremely fickle creatures.

It is very easy to be opposed to fracking – it is expensive, polluting, and it does little to curb greenhouse gas emissions.  Similarly, it is extremely hard to be opposed to renewable energy (although the public, quite reasonably, are less enthusiastic about burning biofuels than they are about harvesting sunshine).  Presumably, the one percent who oppose renewables are those who live next door to wind turbines that someone else rakes in profits from.  The rest of us, however, tend to see renewables as an entirely benign technology that gives us a warm glowing feeling when we like or share them on social media.

One way in which social scientists try to balance these kinds of questionnaires is to add some costs.  For example, would support for fracking be greater if it reduced household bills?  Similarly, would support for renewables be quite so high if it meant energy bills rising?

The trouble is that all of the energy technologies put forward as potential replacements for coal, oil and gas are far more expensive.  The overspend on the massive Hinkley Point C nuclear power project seems to increase every time someone puts a shovel in the ground.  Fracking is only cheap provided nobody actually does it.  Renewables only look cheap(ish) because the public picks up the additional costs that result from a lack of investment in storage.

In the recent government Cost of Energy Review, energy economist Dieter Helm makes this telling observation:

“It is not particularly difficult to set out what an efficient energy system might look like which meets the twin objectives of the climate change targets and security of supply. There would, however, remain a binding constraint: the willingness and ability to pay for it. There have to be sufficient resources available, and there has in a democracy to be a majority who are both willing to pay and willing to force the population as a whole to pay. This constraint featured prominently in the last three general elections, and it has not gone away.”

While UK shale gas is unlikely to be profitable without massive energy price rises of the kind that trigger economic collapse, conventional gas is significantly cheaper than renewables.  And while the build cost of nuclear is higher than for offshore wind, add in life expectancy, storage capacity and grid connection costs and the difference is far less than the build cost implies.  In the event of additional costs translating into higher (possibly much higher) household bills, that apparent public support for renewables could very quickly dissipate.

In the USA, for example, under Obama’s presidency, public support for renewables rose.  However, as energy prices increased and mining jobs were lost, a sufficient proportion of the population were won over to the Trump campaign’s support for revitalising fossil fuel generation.  A similar political process is playing out in Australia, where domestic coal is still mined and exported on the cheap while the population is saddled with high bills for renewable electricity.

The real issue then, is not how many of us like this or that energy technology; what matters is how many of us are prepared to stick with our chosen technologies even to the point that we are driven into energy poverty (defined as spending more than 10 percent of your household income on energy).  This problem can only worsen as global energy costs continue to increase as we finish using up the last of the cheap and easily accessible fossil fuels.

The risk is that when the full cost of renewable (and new nuclear) energy makes its way into household bills, we will experience a similar backlash to the ones in Australia and the USA.  This could easily result in even more money being wasted in attempting to reopen coal mines and refinancing a fracking industry that is close to bankruptcy.


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