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Policy Literacy and Engagement are Key to Sound Energy Policy

Clean Energy Leadership Institute's picture
  • Member since 2018
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  • Aug 8, 2016


By Kate Wallace

Energy policies are multifaceted, and it is important that the complexity of those policies is digestible and comprehensible to all Americans to ensure a positive energy future for our nation. Energy affects the daily lives of Americans so it is important that the average citizen understand energy policies at least on a basic level. Most Americans have little or no knowledge about what the numbers on their monthly electric bill represent, how their state’s policies affect the energy sources that are used, or how their energy consumption impacts the environment. This is where our country has failed.

RTI International conducted a study in 2012 that examined “Americans’ perceived and actual understanding of energy.” They found a significant gap between the two. Results showed that 87% of respondents with a bachelor’s degree or higher agreed or strongly agreed that “people like them” would be able to understand energy fundamentals. However, when tested on their actual knowledge they scored only 6.7 out of 11. Similar trends were seen throughout various education levels, age groups and incomes. The study found that education, income and age all positively correlate to energy knowledge. People who are older, have higher incomes and higher levels of formal education tend to understand energy more than those who are younger, have less education and have lower incomes. It is obvious that the disconnect between Americans’ actual and perceived energy knowledge needs to be addressed.

More Americans need to understand what energy policies aim to do, how they affect their lives, and why those policies are important to the broader population, because it can help ensure that the best policies are instituted. Policy literacy gives individuals and communities the power to engage in local politics on issues that are relevant and important to their town or county. Rather than letting an irrelevant policy be put in place or allowing a pertinent policy to be shut down because of politics, a community can come together and fight for the policy option that makes the most sense for them.

For example, a large grassroots effort throughout the state of Maryland aimed to educate the voting population about clean energy alternatives, which ultimately played a major role in getting an update to the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to pass state legislature. This effort helped legislators recognize that investing in and promoting a cleaner energy economy is important to Maryland’s constituents. According to a recent article in Utility Dive, the more stringent RPS will not only provide environmental benefits, but also address key economic issues that are important to Maryland’s population, such as jobs and investment in clean energy to diversify the state’s energy portfolio and reduce the state’s carbon footprint. Energy literacy is the reason that individuals and communities were able to fight for a cleaner energy economy and encourage legislators to strengthen the state’s policy. This could not have been achieved if Maryland constituents were not able to learn key knowledge about energy and its policies from the larger grassroots effort.

Millennials should be the focus for improving energy policy literacy because they will be the next generation stepping into the legislative and decision-making roles of government at the federal, state and local levels. They are also now the largest voting population, but the least engaged. Their relationship with policy is quite different than their predecessors. A National Geographic article explains the generation gap well: millennials are more concerned with climate change and clean energy than their parents’ generations, but are less likely to actually vote. Moreover, according to a February 2016 article, millennials also are more technologically connected and dependent than any other generation, but do not necessarily understand what that means in terms of energy consumption.

In October 2014, the Pew Charitable Trust published a study which found that of non-voters in the midterm election, 34% were younger than 30 years of age. This is a substantial number of millennials who were either not registered or unlikely to vote at all. Millennials have the potential to be the most influential generation for policy. Unfortunately, if such a large portion of the millennial population does not register or does not show up on election days, their influence will be insignificant. Furthermore, if millennials do register and vote but lack the necessary knowledge to make sound policy decisions, their participation will lack merit and their influence will also be insignificant.

Education is the only way to foster sound energy policy for the future. Without it, there is risk that policies could become outdated or irrelevant to the current market. The energy sector is ever-changing and U.S. policies should reflect that mobility. Policy literacy is key to ensuring that future legislation reflects the industry’s mobility, while simultaneously addressing climate change and environmental issues. Millennials and the broader American population need to be educated on energy fundamentals so they can positively and actively lead the United States to better energy policies and a brighter future.

Kate Wallace has worked in the oil and gas industry for the last two years where she’s focused on research, policy analysis, and content development. She was a CELI Fellow in Spring 2016 and is excited to continue developing her career in the energy industry.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 9, 2016

Kate, while it’s reassuring to see someone who’s working in the oil and gas industry emphasize the importance of energy literacy, it must be fraught with conflicts.

As you know, the oil and gas industry has been focused for decades on “educating” the public that global warming does not exist, that it’s not a serious problem, or that it’s not caused by humans. In the 1970s they financed a cottage industry of “scientists” to hype the dangers of nuclear energy, so they might sell more of their own product.

While energy literacy is important, it’s not as important as energy understanding. There’s a difference. For example, you write about a “positive energy future” as though everyone agreed on the definition of this subjective concept. And when you write about “clean”, are you including nuclear energy, which from a per-unit-of-energy emissions standpoint is cleaner than solar?

If you aren’t, it seems your job of “content development” might more accurately be characterized as “public relations” – crafting a message focused more on selling your company’s product than furthering America’s positive energy future. There are areas where both overlap, but significant areas where they don’t.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Aug 9, 2016

In the 1970s they financed a cottage industry of “scientists” to hype the dangers of nuclear energy, so they might sell more of their own product.

1970’s?  Try 1950’s, when the Rockefeller Foundation commissioned the BEAR I genetics committee, provided the financing and even the chairman (not a geneticist) from its own membership.  Rod Adams has a writeup on the connections, and much more in his “smoking gun” archives.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 10, 2016

Great point about the importance of educating the public about energy. Here are a few of my favorite energy facts that the public needs to understand:

– Distributed energy is double the cost of utility scale energy; billing plans that conceal this fact are cost shifting mechanisms that hurt the economy and the public (especially the poor).
– Variable renewables increase the need for “flexible generation”, which mostly comes from fossil fuel use.
– Advanced batteries are on a cost trajectory that will make a large impact on personal transportation, but they are a very poor fit for grid energy storage for a time scale over 8 hours, thus they will likely displace very little fossil fuel flexible generation.
– For a given level of technology development (e.g. storage and/or demand response), a grid rich in variable renewables is likely to have a few times higher use of fossil fuel, therefore higher emissions of CO2 and air pollution than one rich in nuclear power (e.g. France).
– No one has ever been harmed by nuclear waste. There were zero radiation deaths from the Three Mile Island and Fukushima nuclear accidents (though hundreds of elderly persons were killed by unneeded evacuations). Over six decades of civil nuclear power has proven nuclear to be our safest energy option, much safer and cleaner than any plausible combination of renewables with fossil fuel backup.

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