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A new poll released by the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association shows strong support from North Carolinians for more renewable energy, is the story.

But a closer reading of the poll results and information given and withheld from respondents supports the idea that what North Carolinians want is more choice in electricity provision and a stronger economy.

Use of these results to suggest that North Carolinians favor renewable energy mandates, such as the renewable energy portfolio standards (RPS), would be mistaken. Nevertheless, that appears to be one of the conclusions that NCSEA hopes state leaders will reach.

Last year I looked at two different polls, one from NCSEA and the other from the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, of North Carolinians’ opinion of energy issues. Though both polls seemed to offer disparate findings, I detected four findings in common:

1.  When costs aren’t a factor, North Carolinians generally and widely favor renewable energy sources.

2.  North Carolinians want to be able to choose, individually, how much of their electricity comes from renewable energy sources — not have it dictated to them.

3.  North Carolinians suspect the monopoly utilities are taking advantage of them.

4.  North Carolinians dislike being forced to pay more for electricity than they ought to.

I inferred from those poll results a key lesson for supporters of the RPS mandate: hide the costs.

For make no mistake: there is no pro-consumer case for the RPS mandate. Renewable energy is simply more costly than fossil fuels. Forcing it on consumers who have no other choice raises prices on them of a basic household necessity.

In a roundabout way, RPS supporters have a few things working in their favor:

  • Consumers dislike and distrust the electricity monopoly (see questions 3, 7, and 14) and want choice (questions 4, 15-18, and also 19-28).
  • Consumers think electricity is increasingly too expensive (questions 2, 5, 6, and 15), but they tend to think utility greed is the main cause (question 7).
  • Consumers are worried about the economy and want to see more job opportunities and employers in North Carolina (questions 2, 7, 8, 9, 13, and 14-18).

With select phrasing and juxtaposition, it can be made to appear as if North Carolinians favor the RPS mandate with its higher electricity prices and restrictions of consumer choices. All it takes is being very, very careful to avoid spilling the beans to respondents about the RPS mandate being a state directive and about the wide cost differences among the different electricity sources.

In other words, remove the lack of choice and the disparate costs from the narrative, and speak of renewable energy in terms of choice, market competition (which suggests lower costs), and job creation.

Here, for example, is how the poll describes the RPS mandate (question 8):

In 2007, a law was adopted to…create new clean energy jobs in the energy sector…make it easier to attract private investments for development of new technologies…improve public health by requiring greater reliance on renewable energy and energy efficiency…and…use more of the energy resources that are available within North Carolina.

The poll seeks a general reaction to the idea, asking if they think it’s a "good idea," which as I said last year, amounts to a finding of agreement that "nice sentiments are nice."

The follow-up question (9) asked which nice sentiment was "most important," and the majority of respondents reacted most favorably to the two sentiments most related to job creation in North Carolina: "Creating new clean energy jobs in the energy sector" (20.4 percent) and "Using more of the energy resources that are available within North Carolina" (36.2 percent).

The latter finding, by the way, should encourage state leaders working to get natural gas drilling started more quickly in North Carolina.

Another question got a favorable ("Good policy") response on "laws that provide tax breaks and other incentives for the development of solar energy and other renewable energy sources" by conflating "reduc[ing] reliance on fossil fuels" and "protect[ing] the environment" (lesser-polling priorities in questions 13 and 2) with "creat[ing]good-paying jobs in the energy sector" (high priorities in questions 13 and 2, and emphasis added). A similar question was not asked concerning natural gas development, though it likely would have received a favorable reception as well for the same reason: it would address North Carolinians’ concerns over job creation and the state economy.

Question 11 stated outright that the RPS mandate resulted in "residential customers pay[ing] less than fifty cents more per month," a rhetorical shell game of hiding the cost by acting as if the cost of the mandate to consumers is just the heavily tailored monthly fee. A majority (55.4 percent) of respondents had earlier said that electricity rates were "too high," and a greater majority (74 percent) had said that prices had increased over the past two years.

The hope, it seems, is that consumers will continue to blame utilities for the post-mandate spate of large rate hikes. Never mind that the utilities admitted the hikes are needed to "help the company as it transitions to cleaner energy" because "clean energy is not necessarily cheap energy."

Choice and competition: wildly popular

The next set of questions focused on expanding electricity provision beyond the current monopoly system. Choice-based language (highlighted here) is used throughout, and respondents greeted it all very favorably:

  • 89.5 percent agreed there should be "more options for providing and purchasing power and electricity from other companies in North Carolina, in order to ensure that rates are competitive and that energy providers are responsive to the needs of their customers and the general public."
  • 88.7 percent supported "new legislation that would allow other energy companies besides Duke Energy to also sell power and electricity services directly to consumers and businesses in North Carolina, to create more market competition."
  • 83.2 percent supported "new legislation that would create opportunities for alternative energy companies that use sustainable and renewable energy resources, such as the sun and wind, to offer power and electricity services directly to consumers and businesses in North Carolina."

People responded that strongly in favor of competitive rates, more market competition, and more freedom in electricity provision (more options, more opportunities, and offered power rather than mandated purchase). Those findings testify to the need to free electricity consumers in North Carolina, not keep them captive to a state-chosen monopoly provider forced to obey a state-directed RPS mandate.

The poll also found majorities favoring using whatever energy source was suggested (solar, wind, nuclear, natural gas, biomass) at the time "to meet growing needs for energy and electricity to residences and businesses in North Carolina" — except for coal (48.4 percent plurality in support), likely reflecting the current coal ash controversy, since a similar question last year found a majority in favor of coal as well.

Those questions do not mention any prices, costs, or efficiencies associated with the various sources of electricity, leaving respondents to answer without concern over raising or lowering rates. The majorities were stronger for renewable sources and natural gas than coal and nuclear, though as I wrote last year, what those results basically indicate is that most North Carolinians favor tapping energy sources to meet energy needs.

Choice would be good for renewable energy, too

While the new poll found strong support for renewable energy, its findings are not indicative of consumer support for the involuntary or mandated purchase of renewable energy.

Like this year’s poll, the Civitas poll last year found 70 percent of North Carolinians in support of using renewable sources to meet energy needs. Civitas, however, then asked what the NCSEA poll avoided: if North Carolinians favor being forced to purchase renewable energy. Support fell to just 21 percent.

The NCSEA’s poll results are positive for renewable energy providers overall. Not only did the poll find strong support for allowing renewable energy companies to sell directly to consumers and businesses, but it also found a solid majority (58.9 percent) preferred, "if [they] could choose," to have "more access" (again, choice-based rather than involuntary) "to renewable energy sources for [their] home[s]." That question — the last energy question in the survey — included that the renewable energy sources "might cost more to use."

The Civitas poll made a similar finding of support for renewable energy despite higher costs: 40 percent would "voluntarily pay more to buy electricity for your home or business that was generated by sources such as solar and wind" (emphasis added). That answer, too, hinged upon consumer choice.

The polls show that North Carolinians favor more freedom, more consumer choice, in energy, as opposed to monopoly electricity provision and purchasing mandates for renewable energy sources. Trusted with more freedom of choice, they indicated they would be welcoming to renewable energy sources as well as to price-competitive sources.

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