Some Thoughts On The University of Texas Energy Poll

This latest collection of random observations has been sponsored by the University of Texas, and their energy poll which was released last week. The results of 2,100 respondents have been weighted to reflect the demographics of the US. Now I’m not even going to touch the political Q&As with a barge pole, (although you can see them all here), because frankly there are a number of much more fascinating topics to consider. And here are three of them.

Here are a number of future scenarios which were surveyed:

First up, I was überly encouraged (well, pretty much amazed) by the high percentages across the board for these scenarios. But then I considered what my responses would be, and I gained a better understanding.

For I would like to think that in five years time I will have a new car, and one of the key determinants behind my choice will be fuel efficiency…hence a hybrid or electric vehicle will be a logical choice (…in a perfect, cost-competitive world). Meanwhile, the ever-increasing efficiency and improvement in solar technology will likely make it a much more viable option in five years time, so this also seems a plausible consideration (although 28% uptake still seems mighty high).

But both the high percentage and the improving prospects for ‘smart meter‘ technology are the high point of this chart (literally), as it reflects the public’s awareness and willingness to embrace energy efficiency. It also is indicative of the the minimum effort / maximum savings scenario that smart meters present.

For anyone stumped by smart meter technology, I understand it simply through my dishwasher. Smart meter technology provides two-way communication between my energy use and my utility, so I can review the information and understand when is the best (cheapest) or worst (most expensive) time to run my dishwasher, and adjust my behavior accordingly (kaching!).

The above chart is encouraging as it not only gives an optimistic view for increasing energy efficiency going forward, but it also shows marked improvement in expectations over the last 12 months. That said, while these results give us insight, they by no means guarantee what will transpire. After all, while I think it is likely I will have smart meter technology, a hybrid, and solar panels in five years, I also expect to own a Marty McFly ‘Back to The Future’-style hover-board  in ten years time. And yes, I really, really hope these all come true.

The next set of responses bring us back down to earth with a snapshot of ….now:

Disregarding the percentages, the clear emphasis here is all about $$$. While the previous chart looks into the future, providing the benefit of altruism, this chart places the emphasis on immediate concerns, which inevitably leads us to our wallets.

I find it somewhat surprising that energy dependence ranks so highly, but from the outside perspective of a Brit, this is likely driven by the fierce patriotism that exists in the US (a good thing). The recent unrest in the Middle East and the subsequent price spikes at the pump are also no doubt a large contributor. Further down the totem pole of propositions we see environmental issues enter the fray, with hydraulic fracturing the lowest ranked priority. This likely reflects NIMBY, or the distinct lack of it anyway (because fracking directly impacts such a small percentage of the population).

The third and final chart is gasoline costs, and a question which is hugely relevant at the moment, given the contradictory relationship betwixt comparatively low WTI crude oil prices, rising production, stymied demand, and high gasoline prices:

The result of the above chart serves to affirm a common misconception: that oil and gas companies and speculators are the dastardly villains of the oil market. The reality is that it is international markets that are driving the price of global oil benchmarks (and specifically Brent crude oil), which is the main driver to the price at the pump.

While global supply and demand drive the movement of global oil prices, this dynamic is very much out of whack in the US; oil supply is ample to say the least (hark, domestic production is at a 17-year high), while gasoline demand in 2012 has consistently lagged that of recent years.

The chart at right highlights that 62% of gasoline prices are due to the underlying oil price…a key determinant. And while we can try and blame speculators and oil companies for inflating the price of crude, the reality is that price discovery keeps the market honest. People will buy oil until it is too expensive, and sell it until no-one is willing to buy it anymore.

I found these three slides fascinating, and I thoroughly recommend you take a look at the entire slide deck from the University of Texas Energy Poll. For me, these three slides typify two distinct emotions, that of hope and fear. Hope of a cleaner, greener, and more energy-efficient environment going forward, but one where change is driven by a fear of higher energy costs.