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Public less enthusiastic about renewables, but advocates still see path


New polling shows most Americans still favor non-fossil fuel energy sources, but support for certain renewables is not quite as strong these days and a Wisconsin expert hopes the direct impacts of climate change bolster messaging.

The Pew Research Center is out with a new public opinion report on energy choices. Among those surveyed, 63% support the U.S. taking steps to become carbon-neutral by 2050. But support for expanding wind and solar development has gone down from well past 80% to around 75%.

Dr. Ciaran Gallagher, energy and air manager for the climate nonprofit Clean Wisconsin, feels it is important to remind residents climate change is happening at their doorstep.

"We can point to the drought that affected our farmers last summer and then in stark comparison, the intense rain and flooding events we've been experiencing this spring and summer," Gallagher explained.

She mentioned last summer's smoky air from Canadian wildfires as another example. Advocates said such events might help convince the public to regain confidence in renewables as policymakers try to limit climate disasters. Local opposition has surfaced for various solar and wind projects. Gallagher acknowledged it is not surprising, adding misinformation and polarization are driving changing attitudes.

Grid operators warn as more coal plants and other fossil sources come offline to meet clean energy goals, reliability issues might surface in the short term as energy demand soars. But Gallagher countered it does not mean wind and solar are failing to keep the lights on.

"These last few winters, the energy source that has failed is gas power plants," Gallagher pointed out. "Solar and wind in some of the recent storms have outperformed more than they (were) expected (to)."

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission points out in a 2022 winter storm affecting parts of the Midwest, 90% of prolonged outages were linked to fossil sources.

The Pew survey also showed Americans are not quite as eager to purchase an electric vehicle compared with a few years ago. Gallagher echoed predictions from agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics which indicate organic growth will still happen. She added people taking advantage of federal incentives right now to bring EVs within reach are likely to spur word-of-mouth.

"We're going to see these numbers continue to grow as more people talk to their friends and families that have been early adopters of these technologies," Gallagher predicted.

Mike Moen is a radio news reporter with nearly two decades of experience in the field. He has covered much of the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Many of his stories have aired nationally, including several public radio programs.
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