Solar energy: third of homeowners favor it over other power sources

Solar is the energy source that Americans prefer. This is one result of a national poll conducted by the Gallup Organization Inc. for the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI).

The survey was an attempt to fill gaps in previous efforts to plumb public opinion on solar energy and the proper role of the government in supporting it.

"We were stunned and pleased when solar energy came out so well," says Barbara Farquar-Pilgrim, principal investigator for the SERI's National Study of the Residential Solar Consumer.

The survey was conducted at the same time as the 1980 presidential election, and its results raise some basic questions about the public acceptability of President Reagan's energy policy, which involves a significant reduction in federal support for solar energy.

In this poll, 2,023 US homeowners, chosen at random, were personally interviewed concerning their views on US energy policy. They were asked to rank different energy sources, to indicate how much they have been effected by rising energy costs, and to give their views on the proper role of the federal and state governments, utilities, and the private sector in fostering solar energy growth.

When asked which of seven energy sources --power, synfuels, energy conservation, and solar energy -- they preferred, solar energy rated the highest by far. Thirty-one percent listed it as the most preferred while only 3 percent marked it least preferred. Conservation ranked second, synfuels third, water power fourth, coal fifth, and oil and natural gas sixth.

Nuclear power, one of the few energy sources for which the current administration advocates increased federal support, ranked last. Only 8 percent considered it the most preferable and 45 percent placed it as the least preferable of the options listed.

Polls asking the general question "Do you favor nuclear power?" have been receiving a favorable majority. However, Dr. Farhar-Pilgrim criticizes polls of this sort for asking "motherhood questions" which are of limited value because they do not ask people to compare alternatives.

Critics of solar energy frequently have categorized its supporters as members of society's counterculture fringe. To discover the general public's view, the Gallup pollsters asked people to choose statements that most accurately describe those who have solar energy systems. Unexpectedly, the strongest response was for "economy-minded people." Other popular descriptions were "scientific types, upper-income people, environmentalists, and do-it-yourselfers." Political radicals were ranked last.

Generally, one-third of the people surveyed believed solar systems to be economically beneficial, one-third did not know, and one-third felt this source of energy was not yet cost effective. When asked if they have considered investing in a solar energy system, 4 percent replied that they definitely plan to invest and 14 percent have seriously considered the matter and may invest. Balanced against this are 13 percent who say they will not spend money for solar equipment and 68 percent who have not considered the matter.

"This is an indication that the potential solar market may be substantially larger than is generally realized," says Dr. Farquar-Pilgrim. On the other hand , 39 percent of those considering solar believe a major renovation of their homes would be necessary to make solar energy work.

People's prime reasons for choosing solar energy were economic: cutting down utility bills, saving money over the long term, and protecting themselves against rising energy costs. However, having a more reliable source of energy, conserving natural resources, increasing the comfort of home, helping to ease the energy crisis, and increasing self-reliance also were highly rated.

In an attempt to get a better feeling for the strength of these noneconomic factors, peple were asked if they were willing to pay a monthly premium for solar energy. In reply, 29 percent indicated they were while 49 percent were not. An extra $25 per month appeared most appropriate to those who were willing pay extra for solar's perceived benefits.

The Reagan administration has defended its cutbacks in solar support by arguing that it is better left in the hands of private industry. The SERI poll suggests that the American public has a substantially different view. The interviewers gave people a list of things that might be done to promote solar energy and a list of institutions ranging from the federal government to private industry. When asked which institutions should do what, the federal government to private industry. When asked which institutions should do what, the federal government was listed above all others in the categories of backing solar system warrantees, providing financial assistance such as low-cost loans, and in educating the public.

In choosing specific financial incentives that the federal government might supply, those surveyed listed low interest loans as preferable, followed by income tax credits. Currently, federal tax credits are available for some solar systems.

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