Thursday, October 20, 2011

US Energy Poll Reveals Contradictions

Yesterday I received a press release announcing the results of a new poll on US consumer attitudes towards energy conducted by the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in Austin. I wasn't surprised to see that a plurality of the poll's respondents thinks the country is headed in the wrong direction on energy--triple the proportion that think we're on the right track--and many expect the situation to get worse in the next 25 years. That meshes with numerous readings on Americans' views of the overall economy. The poll also showed consumers broadly dissatisfied with the job that government and industry are doing in this regard, though the renewable energy sector, along with engineers, scientists and academia received somewhat better marks. At the same time, the results on several questions either contradict current consumer trends or reveal a poor understanding of energy market influences. Perhaps the most reassuring finding was that less than a quarter of consumers consider themselves knowledgeable on energy, while a large majority is interested in learning more.

The main question that grabbed my attention concerned consumers' "expectations for adopting new technology." 38% reported they were likely to use smart meter technology within the next five years, 30% said they were likely to own a hybrid car, and 21% were likely to install solar panels on their homes. On the face of it, these should be very encouraging results for the renewable energy and advanced vehicle sectors and those who invest in them. At the same time, it's hard to square these figures with the actual adoption rates for such technologies in the marketplace.

Consider hybrids, which have lost most of their novelty in the last decade, with cumulative US hybrid car sales standing at just over 2 million at this point. That's less than 1% of total US light-duty vehicles (cars, SUVs and light trucks), but it's still impressive, considering they started at essentially zero in the late 1990s. The problem is that even now, with practically every major carmaker offering at least one hybrid model, and several fielding an entire range of hybrids, 2011 sales have averaged just 2% of total US car sales of 9.5 million through September, based on figures compiled by Add plug-in electric cars like the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf and you get to 2.1%. Even before hybrid supplies were constrained in the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan, advanced vehicle sales never topped 3% in any month of this year.

The poll provides few insights into why the actual "take rate"would amount to less than a tenth of those with favorable attitudes towards buying a hybrid. However, it does suggest that the standard explanation that gas prices just aren't high enough yet is out of step with how consumers view those prices. Fully 95% of respondents described gas prices as either "very high" or "somewhat high", and 78% expected them to be somewhat or significantly higher in six months. One possible conclusion is that despite coming in compact, SUV, truck and luxury flavors, hybrid technology still doesn't deliver the value and/or performance most consumers are seeking, even if they're receptive to it in the abstract.

Then there's the even more dramatic disconnect on solar power. If 21% of single-family dwellings in the US were to install rooftop solar panels of 3 kW or more in the next five years, that would equate to at least 228 GW of solar power--about 90 times current US installed capacity--for average installations of 46 GW per year, or nearly three times the amount installed globally last year, mostly in Europe. As of the end of 2010, there were 153,000 grid-connected PV systems in the US, including commercial and utility installations. Even if all of them were on the rooftops of homes, that would still amount to just a 0.2% market penetration. Although PV prices are coming down rapidly and sales could approach 2 GW in 2011, this divergence between sentiment and sales suggests that a lot more Americans like the idea of rooftop solar than are actually willing to invest in buying (or leasing) it at this point.

Whatever the UT poll results indicate about the potential medium-term market share of new energy technologies, they provide a data point that Americans view energy as another important issue they believe government is getting wrong. They also highlight the need and opportunity for more education on how energy markets really work, with supply constraints and growing demand actually having a much bigger impact on energy prices than the limited pricing power most energy companies enjoy.

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