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Innovative poll gives interesting results

An innovative opinion poll on energy options in South Texas revealed considerable support for renewables, although this dropped when options for meeting future needs were discussed in detail and the extent of the lack of utility knowledge of renewables was revealed. Customers selected a mix of options as ideal, concluding they would pay an extra $5.60 monthly on average for renewable energy.

Some surprising results from an innovative opinion poll on energy options in South Texas is prompting a strong reaction from backers of clean energy. A so-called "deliberative poll" of 265 randomly chosen customers of a subsidiary of the Central and Southwest utility (CSW), Central Power and Light Co (CP&L) of Corpus Christi, was conducted last month. It revealed considerable support for renewables, although this dropped when options for meeting future needs were discussed in detail and the extent of the lack of utility knowledge of renewables was revealed.

Immediately after the survey, CSW issued a statement headlined: "Poll Results Show Customer Preference For Mix of Options to Meet Future Energy Needs." The release detailed how the number of residential customers who chose renewables as a first choice -- to meet future electricity needs -- dropped dramatically from 67% to 16% once the issues were discussed in a "town meeting."

By the same token, the preference for energy efficiency and fossil fuel plants increased significantly after discussion. The subsidiary projects it will need an additional 200-400 MW in the Rio Grande Valley between 1999 and 2001. The options proposed were: efficiency, importing power, building a natural gas or coal plant, or building renewables plants.

Customers discussed the options in both large and small groups, including with members of the state Public Utilities Commission over a period of 12 hours. Afterwards, they selected a mix of options as ideal. Previously, two-thirds had wanted renewables as their first choice. However, residential customers did conclude they would pay an extra $5.60 monthly on average for renewable energy. Least favoured was the option to buy in power from outside.

"Customers . . . clearly want a mix of energy resources," says Will Guild, research psychologist for the poll. "Before they had any information, two-thirds of the residential customers wanted to meet the need solely with renewable energy, given the assumption that all choices cost the same. Following deliberation, customers decided they wanted renewables in a mix of options." The poll was part of the utility integrated resource planning process required in the state as of last year. The results represented the first time that a Texas utility has involved a statistically representative sample of customers in resource planning.

In a response to the poll, issued via the American Wind Energy Association, former Texas public utilities commissioner Karl Rabago, now national head of energy for the Environmental Defense Fund, was sharp. "Central Power and Light had better start working on energy efficiency and renewable energy if they are going to satisfy customers," he said. Formerly of the US Department of Energy, Rabago was present at the deliberative poll as an efficiency and renewables expert.

Of the most contentious part of the survey, he noted that the residential customers changed the strength of their support for renewables only after being told of the immediacy of the utility's need for power; CP&L's lack of experience with renewables; and the abundance of low-cost efficiency possibilities.

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