An opinion survey commissioned by the Sierra Club supposedly shows that Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly favor the expansion of wind and solar power and the phase out of coal-fired power plants. An obvious implication is that Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the Senate’s leading critic of the Obama administration’s anti-coal policies, is out of step with his constituents.
This is an old trick (see my post on a similar, NRDC-sponsored poll of Michigan voters in House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton’s district). When a pollster asks leading questions, he can usually elicit the answers his client is paying for.
In the Sierra Club-sponsored survey of 500 registered Oklahoma voters, 78% of those polled said they generally support expanded use of renewable energies like wind and solar power, and 62% said they would support phasing out some of the State’s coal-fired power plants.
The Sierra Club’s polling strategist waxed enthusiastic about the results, Greenwire reports:
“The results of this poll are remarkable,” Sierra Club polling strategist Grace McRae said in a statement.
“Across the nation, support for clean energy is high, but in Oklahoma, nearly 8 out of 10 voters support expanding use of clean energy resources like wind and solar. Oklahoma’s leaders and utilities should take note: Oklahomans want clean energy.”
Okay, let’s look at how the survey reaches those “remarkable” results.
The first question sets the predicate for the rest. It reads:
Q1 In Oklahoma there are a number of different energy sources that we could use to meet our growing energy needs. Generally speaking, do you support or oppose the expanded use of renewable energy sources such as solar energy and wind energy?
The content of this question largely predetermines the answer. The question refers to Oklahoma’s “growing energy needs” and a “number of different energy sources” available to the State. The question evokes the familiar bipartisan pablum that America needs an inclusive, “all of the above,” policy to meet the nation’s energy needs. By definition, all-of-the-above includes wind and solar. And Voilà, you get 78% of respondents saying they “generally” want more wind and solar.
Here’s the next question dealing with voter attitudes:
Q 3 Currently, there are six coal-fired power plants in Oklahoma. Would you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose phasing-out some of these coal-fired power plants and replacing them with clean, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar?
This question employs two tricks. First, because most people feel they must give consistent answers, those who said they “generally” favor expanded use of wind and solar may now feel they have to support “replacing” some coal plants with wind and solar. The second trick is to combine “renewable energy” with a term of praise: “clean.” Who doesn’t want energy to be cleaner, other things being equal?
The problem, of course, is that other things are not equal. Wind energy is inferior to coal-generated electricity in many respects. It is intermittent, often unavailable when most needed (hot summer days when the wind doesn’t blow), costs more per unit of output, occupies much more land per unit of output, requires the construction of new transmission lines (because the best wind sites are typically distant from population centers), and kills far more birds than coal power plants do. Few wind farms would be built absent Soviet-style production quota (“renewable portfolio standards”), a special tax break (wind energy production tax credit), and billions in outright taxpayer-funded grants. Solar power, for its part, is even more costly than wind, and does not generate any electricity when the Sun isn’t shining.
Sixty-two percent of respondents said they support replacing some coal with wind and solar. But how many would give the same responses if, instead of describing renewable energy as “clean,” the question described renewables as “intermittent, unreliable, costly, sprawling, and corporate-welfare-dependent,” or described wind turbines as “dangerous to migratory fowl”?
The next question:
Q 4 According to the American Wind Energy Association, Oklahoma ranks eighth in the country for installed wind energy capacity. And according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, wind in Oklahoma could provide more than 31 times the state’s current electricity needs. After hearing this, do you believe Oklahoma utility companies should invest more in wind power, or not?
That 69% of respondents answered yes is unsurprising. The question is one-sided. The only experts cited are the lobbying arm of the wind-energy industry and a federal agency whose budget critically depends on the extent of public support for renewable energy. No experts opposed to wind energy mandates are mentioned, nor is any information they might provide included.
Worse, the question presents impressive-sounding numbers apart from any practical economic context. How much viewshed degradation would Oklahoma sustain if the State were actually to obtain half of its electricity from wind, let alone all or 31 times the amount of electricity it currently consumes? How much natural gas generation would have to installed to backstop all those additional wind facilities? How many new miles of transmission would have to be built to deliver the wind power to customers? What would it all cost? What would be the impacts on electric rates, the cost of doing business in Oklahoma, and employment rates in non-wind-related firms? Mentioning those concerns might have changed dramatically the responses to the question.
Oklahoma, the survey claims, ranks 8th in the country for installed wind energy capacity, and has enough wind resources to meet more than 31 times the State’s current electricity needs. The implication is that much of the State’s electricity already comes from wind, which could easily provide even more. Let’s look at Oklahoma’s electricity consumption in a high-demand month.
Source: Energy Information Administration
In July 2011, only 3.5% of the State’s electric generation came from wind, compared to 37% from coal and 58% from natural gas. Those percentages reflect the well-known economic and technical disadvantages of wind compared to coal and natural gas. By presenting big-sounding numbers out of context, the survey leaves the false impression that the only barrier to greater reliance on wind is lack of political will rather than wind’s inherent shortcomings.
Another question from the survey:
Q 5 Because Oklahoma’s coal is hot-burning and high in sulfur, most of the utilities don’t burn Oklahoma coal at their facilities, and instead ship in coal from Wyoming to burn in their coal plants. This sends $494 million dollars out of state every year – money that could be invested in Oklahoma. After hearing this information, do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose utilizing more of Oklahoma’s natural energy resources, like wind, to keep money in the state?
Seventy-six percent of respondents said they support using more Oklahoma resources, “like wind,” to keep money in State.
This question appeals to the protectionist fallacy that buying goods from outsiders is a “wealth transfer” and money down the drain. In fact, the gains from trade are mutual (otherwise it would not occur). If imports did not also benefit the importer, there would be no global marketplace, most of us would not be alive, and those who remained would be stuck in Medieval squalor. If the ‘logic’ underpinning this question were valid, each State — indeed each village and household — would be better off boycotting all goods and services produced in national and international commerce so as to have more money to invest in itself.
Consumers benefit when they get a good buy, regardless of whether the seller lives next door or in Timbuktu. The fact that most States mandate the sale of renewable electricity is prima facie evidence that wind is not a good buy. If wind energy delivered more bang for our electricity buck than coal or natural gas, there would be no need to shield it from market competition.
If the survey were balanced, the question would also mention that ramping up wind energy would force Oklahomans to pay for large quantities of steel, rare earths, and components produced out of State and overseas. But again, where parts and materials are sourced is irrelevant from a consumer perspective. By implying that Oklahoma consumers are better off buying wind power, simply because it is not imported, the question again biases respondents in favor of the Sierra Club’s preferred answer.
The survey is curiously silent about natural gas, the main source of Oklahoma electric power in periods of peak demand. Oklahoma has significant conventional and shale natural gas plays. Should policymakers allow more hydraulic fracturing to expand shale gas production and keep more dollars in State? You won’t find that question in the survey because the Sierra Club wants to ban hydro fracking and would not like the result.
In short, the Sierra Club-sponsored poll is rubbish. It is designed not to reflect public opinion but to manufacture it for the purpose of advancing an agenda that would benefit one industry — wind developers — at the expense of Oklahoma consumers and the State’s overall economy.