Poll: Rural Nebraskans Strongly Support Renewable Energy

Poll: Rural Nebraskans Strongly Support Renewable Energy

July 11, 2008

Rural Nebraskans overwhelmingly support aggressive pursuit of renewable forms of energy to resolve the energy crisis, according to the Nebraska Rural Poll. Yet Nebraska is one of 18 states with no standards to require such development.

A majority of respondents to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln poll also reported they believe Americans should reduce their energy consumption, with many saying they already have taken steps to do so.

Rural Nebraskans' embrace of renewable forms of energy and lifestyle changes may be all the more telling, poll organizers note, since the survey was taken from March, when gas prices averaged about $3.20 per gallon, through May, when they were at $3.75. Now they're at about $4.

Surveys were mailed to about 6,200 randomly selected households in Nebraska's 84 rural counties. Results are based on 2,496 responses. Members of the UNL team that conducts the poll, now in its 13th year, were struck by rural Nebraskans' strong support for renewable forms of energy — and how out of touch state policy seems to be with that sentiment.

Ninety-one percent agreed or strongly agreed that more should be done to develop such alternative energy sources as ethanol, biodiesel, wind and solar.

"Rural Nebraskans think we ought to be trying everything. We ought to be blending everything together to come up with a reasonable package" to address energy needs, said Randy Cantrell, a rural sociologist with the university's Rural Initiative and Center for Applied Rural Innovation.

Twenty-eight states have a renewable portfolio standard, which requires electricity providers to obtain a minimum percentage of their power from renewable energy resources by a certain date. Four others have goals in place. Nebraska has neither.

"Nebraska's own Senator George Norris, who championed the Rural Electrification Act more than 80 years ago, would roll over in his grave at this, because we are not adapting," said agricultural economist Bruce Johnson.

"It's a total incongruity," he added. "Here's over 90% of rural Nebraskans saying we really need to move toward renewable energy and it's a safe bet that metro-Nebraskans feel the same way. But where are the elected leaders of the state who have hardly begun to move on this?"

One example of obvious, but so far unrealized, growth potential in alternative energy is wind.

"Given that Nebraska is ranked sixth nationally in wind-power potential, this state should be front and center on wind energy development, not just on ethanol production which has sort of fallen into Nebraska's lap," Johnson said.

Support for specific forms of alternative energy was strong, as respondents were asked to predict the importance of energy sources for the next generation. Eighty-nine percent said they expected both wind and solar to be important forms of energy. Other energy sources and percentages of those that said they'd be important, included: ethanol from corn, 79%; ethanol from other sources, 81%; nuclear power, 74%; and hydrogen, 66%. Even methane -- 80 million metric tons of which is produced by livestock each year -- is expected to be an important energy source in the future by 55% of respondents.

Eighty-seven percent of respondents said they expect oil to continue to be an important source.

Elsewhere in the poll, 77% of respondents agreed that Americans need to change their lifestyles to reduce energy consumption; only 10 percent disagreed.

"That's a huge statement," Johnson said, especially since it may be more difficult in rural America than elsewhere to make certain lifestyle changes.

As of March, when the poll was taken, poll respondents indicated they already had made some changes in the following ways: cut down luxury household spending, 94%; reduce heat or air conditioning use in home, 91%; cut amount of driving, 91%; attempt to use household appliances more efficiently, 89%; cut necessary household spending, 88%; acquire more goods and services locally, 80%; and shorten or postpone vacation plans, 75%.

One finding in the survey might offer a bright spot to some communities, Johnson said. "We may see some revival of rural main streets," as rural Nebraskans look to buy goods and services closer to home.

Despite the hunger for new energy sources, rural Nebraskans indicated there are some limits. Fifty-seven percent agreed or strongly agreed that the environment should be protected even if that limits energy supplies.

"They're saying, 'as important as energy is, we shouldn't sacrifice the environment,'" Johnson said.

Overall, Johnson said, the poll's findings may reflect the emergence of a "whole new social movement." Put another way by Cantrell, energy conservation and development of alternative energy sources, once stereotyped by some as a fringe cause, is becoming a "mom and apple pie issue."

The development also reflects "the tendency of human beings to wait until there is a crisis" to act, Cantrell added.

The Rural Poll is the largest annual poll of rural Nebraskans' perceptions on quality of life and policy issues. This year's response rate was about 40%. The margin of error is plus or minus 3%. Complete results are available online at http://cari.unl.edu/ruralpoll/.