Poll: Rural Nebraskans favor alternative energy

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

LINCOLN -- Renewable energy sources get a big thumbs up from rural Nebraskans, according to the 2005 Nebraska Rural Poll.

Nearly 90 percent of respondents to the 10th annual University of Nebraska poll agreed the government should encourage use of renewable energy sources.

More than 80 percent agreed that producing more ethanol and biodiesel blended fuels and generating more electricity with wind turbines would benefit Nebraska's economy. Sixty-five percent also agreed alternative energy sources are better for the environment than traditional fossil fuels. While some respondents had no opinion, only 4 percent or fewer disagreed with these statements.

"The people have spoken and a strong majority feels alternative energy can be win-win," said Bruce Johnson, an Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources agricultural economist who works on the poll. He said he has long sensed strong support for alternative energy among rural Nebraskans, but the magnitude of the results surprised him.

"Self-sufficiency is part of rural culture. It's part of having some power over one's future," Johnson said. Using home-grown or produced energy fits that ethos well. "I think people are seeing the local potential."

Poll results indicate ethanol blended gasoline, called E-10, is becoming the fuel of choice for rural residents, Johnson said. Over half said they always or almost always fill up with ethanol blend, 22 percent sometimes use it and 20 percent said they seldom or never use it.

"The economic incentive to use ethanol has become greater as gas prices have risen," said Becky Vogt, the poll manager.

Rural residents also strongly favor harnessing Nebraska's seemingly ceaseless winds for energy. More than 70 percent of respondents agreed 10 percent of Nebraska's electricity should come from alternative energy sources. Eighty-four percent said wind power can be produced and used locally. Only 3 percent of respondents disagreed with either statement.

"This strong response sends a clear signal to our public electric utilities to accelerate their efforts to move ahead with wind power," Johnson said. "This tells policy-makers that Nebraskans want this to be part of their future."

That strong positive view of wind energy comes despite Nebraska's relatively low electric rates and the ready availability of coal in neighboring Wyoming. Nebraska is one of the nation's top states for wind power potential and rural residents seem to recognize this untapped resource, he said.

Part of the appeal of generating electricity with wind power is that turbines can operate locally on a small-scale much like ethanol plants rural Nebraskans have watched develop across the state, Johnson said.

Likewise, a local wind farm could create good jobs. "It could be an economic advantage to rural areas if that energy can be produced and used locally," Johnson said. Instead of a few large, concentrated production facilities, wind power can be generated on a relatively small scale. "It's a dispersal of economic activity. There can be little fish as well as a few big fish in this business."

Not surprisingly, farmers and ranchers are among the strongest supporters of renewable energy, including wind power as well as ethanol and biodiesel made from their crops. More than 90 percent of farmers and ranchers agreed producing more ethanol and soy biodiesel would be good for Nebraska's economy and that the government should encourage renewable fuel use. Eighty-seven percent said wind power can be produced and used locally.

While support for alternative energy sources is strong, opinions on their cost and reliability were mixed. A third of respondents agreed alternative energy sources are more expensive than traditional fuels such as oil, gas and coal, 28 percent disagreed and 39 percent had no opinion. A third disagreed that fossil fuels are more reliable than alternative sources while 23 percent agreed and 44 percent had no opinion.

That probably indicates a lack of certainty about specifics of these new energy sources, Vogt said. "They tended to be more undecided on the more technical questions."

Questionnaires for the scientific poll were mailed in March to 6,250 randomly selected households in Nebraska's 84 rural counties. Results are based on 2,851 responses. This year's response rate was 46 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent.

The poll is the largest annual survey of rural Nebraskans' perceptions on quality of life and policy issues. Complete results are available online at http://cari.unl.edu/ruralpoll/report05.htm.

The poll is conducted by the university's Center for Applied Rural Innovation with funding from the Partnership for Rural Nebraska and IANR's UNL Extension and Agricultural Research Division.

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