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Do Americans Understand Energy? Not Really.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The latest wave of the UT Energy Poll just came out (full disclosure: I am the director) and results highlight the large disconnect between energy and the American public. The poll is a nonpartisan, objective, and comprehensive nationwide survey covering topics from efficiency and voting behavior to climate change and hydraulic fracturing*. This time we included a few energy literacy questions to gauge where Americans are on important energy topics related to policy and the economy.

When asked, “Which country do you believe is the largest foreign supplier of oil for the U.S.?” 58 percent of respondents chose Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, just 13 percent chose the correct answer, Canada.

Which country do you believe is the largest foreign supplier of oil for the U.S.?

Unfortunately, a general lack of understanding was obvious beyond the few quiz-style questions. Eight-two percent of Americans want the federal government to focus on developing natural gas, yet just 38 percent of those who have even heard of hydraulic fracturing support its use in the extraction of fossil fuels. (Note: Hydraulic fracturing is inherently related to natural gas development).

Similar inconsistencies were evident throughout the results and there were also big differences in how various groups responded to the same questions. For example, while the percentage of Americans who think that climate change is occurring held steady at 72 percent, this includes 87 percent of Democrats, 52 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of Libertarians, and 68 percent of Independents.

Why should we track–or even care about–public opinion on energy issues? Because it matters. Our attitudes eventually shape future policy decisions and define global energy priorities. So it’s important that we continue to pay attention.

I encourage readers to spend some time exploring the new data by political party, gender, and income using this neat interactive graphic on the UT Energy Poll website. The results may surprise you.


* To ensure the data is representative of the U.S. population, figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income are weighted where necessary to bring them in line with their actual proportions based on the latest census.

Sheril Kirshenbaum About the Author: Sheril Kirshenbaum is Director of The Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin where she works to enhance public understanding of energy issues and improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Follow on Twitter @Sheril_.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rkipling 11:21 am 10/17/2013

    Nice work. If you could add accuracy of knowledge to your interactive graphic that would be very interesting as well. You should have the data to do that from the “Where does the US get imported oil.”

    Link to this
  2. 2. rkipling 11:25 am 10/17/2013

    And yes, there is plenty of evidence that people are uninformed (to put it in the nicest way.)

    Link to this
  3. 3. tomgarven 12:49 pm 10/17/2013

    I really liked the interactive graphic BUT; what is our strategy going forward. Research is great and certainly needed but we also need goals and objectives people can understand and support. Things like:

    1. What are we doing to get this information on the evening news?
    2. What plans are being developed to make this a classroom learning event?
    3. Who are the member of Congress who believe the government should do something and what if anything are we doing to support them?
    4. Where can I find this listing of goals and objectives? Has it been published somewhere?
    5. Which of the interactive graphics items are the most significant or important to focus on?
    6. How is this information being communicated to the general public not just here on Scientific American?
    7. What do you want me as an “individual” to do with this information?

    This is excellent work by Sheril but needs to be promoted in many more places. Just yesterday I wrote a piece for “Breaking Energy” about the efficiency of Air Conditioners. One of the conclusions reached for why more efficient units are not being purchased by consumers was that there is a general lack of knowledge of the value of energy efficient units. While it was a short piece I regret that only a few consumers will ever see the article.

    As bloggers we need to do a much better job of getting our message out. Its great to have all of this knowledge but what is the VALUE of the knowledge if only a few people can relate to it or develop some type of action plan or strategy to support the findings?

    While Scientific American should certainly be complemented for providing this blogging site, the number of readers is limited to the people generally interested in the subjects it publishes. In other words the distribution of the information is limited to a very specific audience even when the information should be of interest to the general public. We need to begin to think about how we are going to get this information out to 100+ million decision making Americans.

    Should we try to talk to our neighbors and coworkers about some of the information contained in this study? Should we try to write a summary article and try to get it included in our hometown newspapers? That would certainly seem like a worthwhile goal. If only 10% of the people on this blog site did that we could probably get the information out to 10′s of thousands.

    To me this article is more or less a summary of some of the difficulties we face with changing the behavior of the American people. For example, this study showed that people who earned more than $50,000 seem to be less interested in energy information than many others. That is certainly understandable since they are normally not worried about how big next months electric bill is going to be; they just pay it. So what is our strategy to change their behavior so they are just as concerned about our environment as we are. It doesn’t make any difference to me if you have a private jet, and a 30 room home in Beverly Hills – we all breathe the same air and drink from the same fresh water supply.

    It also doesn’t really make any difference to me if you believe in Global Warming or Climate Change either. I would you sooner you think everyday of some way to help “improve the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink”. If we had 300 million Americans with the mindset we would have already solved Global Warming and Climate Change. We seem to sometimes forget the power of the individual to effect change.

    O.K. getting down from my soap box now. Thank you very much for reading this very long posting.

    Link to this
  4. 4. rkipling 1:10 pm 10/17/2013


    I’m interested to know your view of geothermal heat pumps. They run more of the time but provide a more uniform temperature in the house. I don’t notice a hot or cold streams of air from registers when it comes on. I’m planning to install the same type of units in my new house. Is there something else I should consider?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Sisko 1:31 pm 10/17/2013

    Sheril Kirshenbaum
    You wrote-
    “while the percentage of Americans who think that climate change is occurring held steady at 72 percent, this includes 87 percent of Democrats, 52 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of Libertarians, and 68 percent of Independents.”

    Could you please cite the actual polling question and source that you are referencing? Since the climate has always changed is seems strange that 28% of Americans believe that the climate is static. I would guess that the question was a part of a larger poll and may have not been worded exactly as you stated. Did the poll question have anything to do with AGW or whether the changes are detrimental?

    Link to this
  6. 6. jerryd 2:44 pm 10/17/2013

    Sadly too many are more interested in reality shows, football games and other mindless pursuits.

    But most know the problem of using too much and it’s rising cost is why they back RE big time. Even 52% of republicans and they are about as brain dead as you can get, believe in GW.

    Plus the young know much more about it and the ignorant are dying off so the future looks good.

    I believe your spec are off as likely Mexico isn’t supplying us anymore but we supply them instead. The little we import we export back as finished products.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Sisko 3:16 pm 10/17/2013


    I looked at the actual polling questions and you are correct that it is not a very good scientific poll. I would recommend that the questions be clairified so that the 1st question

    Do you believe that the climate stays the same over time.
    What do you believe if the largest cause of the climate changing today?

    Link to this
  8. 8. tomgarven 3:19 pm 10/17/2013

    to: rkipling

    Don’t know why I no longer have a ‘respond to’ button/thingy so I hope you see this response.

    Anyway I have a heat pump on my home in Arizona and would NEVER be without one again. The only thing that would make my installation better would be if it was a ground source unit instead of an air source unit. For those readers who do not know what heat pumps are; they are basically air conditioning units that can provide both heating and cooling. They do this with a simple valve in the refrigeration circuit called a ‘reversing valve’. Best way to describe this in laymans terms is to say that heat pumps can heat your home just like a window AC unit if it was turned around and blew the hot air back into your house. Actually its a little more complicated than that but the principle is about the same.

    While my AIR source unit works well and saves me a ton of money, but like any air conditioner it begins to suffers when outside temperatures go above about 100 F since it is an AIR source unit. As you probably know, the EFFICIENCY of an air conditioner OR heat pump DECREASES as the outside air temperature INCREASES. Same can be said in the heating mode. As the outside air temperature drops heating efficiency also drops in the heat pump mode. Normally heat pumps in America are used for heating down to about 20-25 F however efficiency begins to suffers at the lower temperatures. Since a ground source heat pump draws on the very stable temperature of the earth; it is MUCH more efficient at both heating and cooling. About 15-18 SEER ratings are typical of today’s air source units. Ground source heat pumps can be well above 30 SEER. There are also other things to consider. How much will it cost to dig the wells or bury the ground source tubing. Is there an opportunity to use a couple of solar PV panels to run the pumps during the daytime. Is your utility mostly powered by coal and using electricity to power your heat pump might mean more pollution. Actually the grid is getting cleaner every day so maybe that is only a temporary concern.

    So yes rkipling I believe heat pumps are the way to go. If you live in an area where temperatures are either extremely hot or cold AND you can afford the cost difference; by all means go with a ground source unit and enjoy the savings.

    Heat pumps can and do work really well for lots of American families and we need to be taking advantage of their efficiency. If more Americans were familiar with how heat pumps actually work then maybe we wouldn’t be wasting 61% of every BTU of heat energy we create.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Sheril Kirshenbaum 3:23 pm 10/17/2013

    @rkipling wrote: “If you could add accuracy of knowledge to your interactive graphic that would be very interesting as well. You should have the data to do that from the “Where does the US get imported oil.”

    We could only get so many data points into the graphic before it got too busy, but I can say that many of those who self-report that they are knowledgeable on energy issues did not know that we import the most foreign oil from Canada.

    Link to this
  10. 10. sault 3:35 pm 10/17/2013


    Here’s the link to the actual survey:

    Maybe they have answers to wnat you’re asking for. As for the issue of climate change, the 28% of people who don’t think it’s happening (48% of Republicans) are either uninformed and / or have a reactionary stance against even the term “climate change”. Now you have some idea of the kind of scientific ignorance we have to deal with in the USA.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Sheril Kirshenbaum 3:41 pm 10/17/2013

    Thanks for posting that sault.

    For all interested, the full set of survey questions is available here

    Link to this
  12. 12. rkipling 4:12 pm 10/17/2013

    Sheril Kirshenbaum,

    What I should have asked is what percentage by political party knew most oil came from Canada?

    Link to this
  13. 13. rkipling 4:43 pm 10/17/2013


    Thanks. That’s what I thought, but why not ask an expert to be sure there wasn’t something better?

    Link to this
  14. 14. bucketofsquid 3:01 pm 10/21/2013

    Thanks for the polite discussion. It is a refreshing change from what most of the above posters resort to. Perhaps the impartial data set allows civilized discussion.

    I must confess that I had Saudi Arabia as #1 and Canada as second place so it is nice to see current information so I can change my misconception into accurate understanding. Oddly, as I think about oil from Canada, I don’t really look at it as foreign so much as friendly.

    Link to this

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