As Congress mulls a new national energy policy, Morning Consult polling finds that Americans largely favor renewable energy sources of electricity like solar and wind power over technologies like nuclear and coal power.
Support for coal power stands at 39 percent, down 8 percentage points from May 2014. Of the fossil fuels, natural gas is the clear winner, with 79 percent logging favorable responses.
But renewables get the highest approval, with 85 percent or more favoring wind and solar power.
The poll also asked voters which sources of energy they’d rather see lawmakers focus their efforts on. Here’s what they said:
By a ratio greater than 2:1, a majority of voters said they prefer the federal government focus more on developing renewables than fossil fuels. That includes a majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents. Similar trends occur when the results are broken down by region, age group, income, and location.
“This is exactly in line with what we’ve been seeing for past couple of years,” Kevin Haley, director of communications for the American Council on Renewable Energy, said in an interview. “Support for renewable energy, especially when compared with technologies like coal… is really indicative of how the public is viewing energy these days,” he said.
Republican lawmakers haven’t been focused on pushing policies to advance renewable energy, like tax incentives for renewables such as the wind production tax credit. Instead, they’ve favored policies that advance oil and gas production, like approving the Keystone pipeline and opening up more federal lands to drilling, both of which also poll well with the public.
Although Republicans control both the House and Senate, the debate over incentivizing renewables versus fossil fuels and nuclear will still be relevant as tax credits for renewable energy expire and the Senate Energy Committee attempts broad energy legislation that could define the nation’s energy policy for the next decade.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the Energy Committee, said her view of a good energy policy is “abundant, affordable, clean, diverse and secure,” in a press conference Thursday. She said that clean energy is important to her, but cost also has to be considered.
“I’m not going to do clean at the expense of affordable, so how we make that all work is the great challenge,” Murkowski said.
The price of renewable energy isn’t nearly as much of a high-cost alternative as it was even just a few years ago. Since 2010, the cost of large solar and wind farms has fallen dramatically, allowing some renewable plants to become competitive with fossil-fuel plants. Deutsche Bank estimates that rooftop solar will reach grid parity in all 50 states sometime next year.
But natural gas and oil have also become increasingly cheap since the shale revolution in the mid-2000s.
The price declines are partially thanks to preferential tax treatment of different energy sources. Fights over who gets what play out mainly in the budget process, where Congress decides which energy tax preferences to keep or throw out.
There are only four major energy tax preferences that are permanent, according to the CBO. Three of them are directed toward fossil fuels – which the White House wants to eradicate – and one is directed toward nuclear energy.
Brookings Institution says there are 12 tax provisions that subsidize the use of fossil fuels. Eliminating these provisions entirely would boost federal revenues by $41 billion over 10 years, according to the report.
Renewables, on the other hand, have just two major tax provisions – the renewable electricity production tax credit (PTC), and a credit for investment in advanced energy property (ITC). In terms of cost, these provisions made up 45 percent of federal expenditures from energy-related tax credits in fiscal 2013, more than twice as much as fossil fuels, according to CBO.
That is a statistic that Republicans are quick to point out. However, these renewable tax preferences have sunset provisions that require legislative action to sustain them every few years.
If the PTC isn’t renewed this year and the ITC is allowed to expire in 2016, renewable energy production will “take a hit” according to ACORE’s Haley, especially if it has to complete with technologies that have permanent subsidies.
But, he added, the situation is different than it was five or ten years ago. While it would set the industry back, “renewable energy companies could continue to do business,” he said.
Haley also said that renewables have strong bipartisan support, “the majority of wind energy districts are actually Republican,” he noted. “What you’re seeing here in the divide between the public and congressional leadership on energy issues comes down to the inside-the-beltway-game… the lobbying for [oil and gas interests] is very intense,” he said.