Our country is hanging its hopes for economic recovery on renewable energy. In this rough economic storm, it’s the life ring consumers (and the Obama administration) are clinging to. The administration is funneling hundreds of millions into renewable energy projects. In the last month, President Obama announced the commitment of over $467 million from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to expand and accelerate the development, deployment, and use of geothermal and solar energy throughout the United States. And as part of the ongoing effort to increase the use of domestic renewable fuels, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced plans to provide $786.5 million from the ARRA to accelerate advanced biofuels research and development and to provide additional funding for commercial-scale biorefinery demonstration projects. So it’s understandable that the public is thinking of renewable energy as the solution for our economic woes.
Don’t get me wrong, I think this is fantastic! Our country has needed to invest serious money into the development of alternative energy sources for the past 20 years. However, I think consumer expectations are not being set realistically, and I’m a little worried about the side effects of this euphoria on energy consumption.
First, only a fraction of our current energy supply comes from renewables, and optimistic estimates don’t project that to change for some time. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, renewable energy accounted for a mere 7% of our country’s energy supply in 2007. In their 2009 Annual Energy Outlook, renewable energy’s contribution is projected to grow at a rate of 3.3% per year. (This number acknowledges planned investments from the ARRA and is significantly higher than the historical .5% growth rate we’ve actually experienced over the last few years.) The growth projections are conservative because technological innovation takes time (particularly with price parity as a goal), and our energy infrastructure won’t turn on a dime. I don’t think most Americans realize—it’s going to be quite a while.
This brings me to the point of this blog: I’m worried that since most consumers are unaware of the long-term time frame for renewable solutions. They’re thinking, “The solution is coming soon; there’s no need to change my behavior now!” In addition, I fear another prevalent attitude will be, “If the energy source is renewable, then we can use as much as we like!” I fear these things because we see over and over in our consumer research that most people are more concerned about impact on their personal lives than they are about impact to the environment. Our 2009 Eco Pulse study, fielded in April, shows when given a choice between their comfort, their convenience and the environment, only 26% choose the environment, with 38% choosing their convenience and 36% choosing their comfort. Our Eco Pulse consumer segmentation finds that only 24% of Americans are Activists – those who go beyond saying they care about the environment to actually acting upon those beliefs by changing their resource consumption and disposal behaviors, adopting green buying habits and investing in green home improvements. The majority of Americans espouse environmental sensibilities, but take little to no action. And still, there’s a minority that unashamedly don’t care at all. Most consumers want to be able to drive what they want as far as they want. They want to run their heat and air to be comfortable in their homes, and they don’t want to have to undertake time consuming and expensive home improvements. They want their magic bullet, and I’m pretty sure they think it’s renewable energy.