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A new survey conducted by Pike Research gauges U.S. consumers' level of support for a variety of energy topics, including solar and wind power, the overall smart grid, and smart meters, among others. For the study, the company polled more than 1,000 adults during the third quarter of this year.

Solar Power
According to the report, solar power possesses both the highest percentage of favorable opinions (69%) and the lowest percentage of unfavorable opinions (7%) among all energy and environmental concepts covered in the survey. This concept also received the smallest percentage of neutral (18%) and not sure/not familiar (5%) responses.

However, responses of "very favorable" and "favorable" are down eight percentage points from 2011, when 77% of respondents viewed solar energy in a positive light. While the survey did not explore the reasons behind this decrease, Pike Research says it may be due to the negative media attention around the failure of some solar energy firms in the U.S., such as Solyndra.

A large number of respondents (42%) indicated a very favorable impression of the solar energy concept, making it one of the least controversial green technologies in the eyes of consumers. Pike Research attributes solar energy's high level of consumer acceptance to its relatively long history in the market, the variety of applications, and the non-intrusive nature of most solar technologies, including photovoltaic panels.

Pike Research's demographic analysis of responses to the solar energy concept revealed a few distinct trends; high levels of favorable impressions across the gender, income, education and age segments suggest that solar energy enjoys widespread appeal from the mass market, according to the report.

While favorable opinions were high among all education segments, those with the highest level of education had the highest favorable rating for solar energy, at 77%. Those with the lowest level of education, a high school diploma or less, exhibited a distinctly lower percentage of favorable responses (58%), the study found.

Another interesting demographic correlation exists across age segments. Surprisingly, older respondents were more likely to have a favorable view of solar energy than younger respondents. Pike Research says that while it is commonly assumed that younger consumers are more enthusiastic about energy and environmental concepts, the percentage of favorable responses in the under-30 age segment was 13 percentage points lower than in the 45-64 age segment.  However, it was the oldest age segment (65 or older) that had the highest percent of respondents that viewed solar energy positively (76%).

Also of note, solar energy favorability increases as income levels increase, Pike Research says. A higher percent of respondents with incomes of $125,000 or more (80%) had a favorable view of solar energy compared to those with incomes of less than $35,000 (66%).

A segmentation analysis based on behavioral and political trends shows that favorability levels were varied across monthly electric spending segments and that Democrats had higher favorability for solar than Republicans (75% and 65%, respectively), the company adds.

Wind Energy
Only slightly less popular than solar energy, wind energy was viewed as either favorable or very favorable by 66% of respondents, down slightly from 71% in 2011. However, Pike Research notes that only 10% of respondents held unfavorable opinions of wind energy, up slightly (two percentage points) from 2011.

Approximately a quarter of respondents were neutral or had no opinion on wind energy. The company says that the similarly high levels of favorable views toward solar and wind energy indicate that consumers are generally supportive of the more established renewable energies that harness naturally occurring power sources. Since these two concepts have retained their most favored status year over year, Pike Research asserts that consumers consider these renewable energies to be important pieces in the power generation portfolio of the future.

The demographic patterns of consumer views of wind energy are analogous to those of solar energy. Education, income and age exhibit the most significant impact on a consumer's view of wind energy, the report says. The "high school graduate or less" segment displayed a slightly lower favorability response (57%) compared to the "higher education" segments. The 65-and-older age group had the highest favorability with wind energy (73%), while the under-30 age group was least enthusiastic about wind energy (59%).

Favorable opinions of wind energy also rose with incomes, Pike Research adds. Of the respondents who made less than $35,000, 62% reported favorable opinions of wind energy compared to 74% of those with incomes of $125,000 or more.

When viewed by behavioral and political segmentation, Pike Research's survey shows that respondents who viewed themselves as the early majority or late majority in terms of technology adoption held slightly more positive views of wind energy, 70% and 69%, respectively. Also, respondents with electric bills in excess of $200 held more positive opinions of wind energy, as did those who identified themselves as Democrats.

Smart Grid
Despite the continued buildout of smart grids and deployments of smart meters, Pike Research says consumer perceptions of these topics remain stagnant. Thirty-six percent of respondents stated their opinions of smart grids were favorable or very favorable, which is about half of the favorability rating of solar energy.

Interestingly, the percentage of unfavorable responses to the smart grid was similar to that of solar energy (8%). Perhaps most telling is that 56% of respondents were either neutral or had no opinion on the concept of smart grids. Thus, despite the low level of unfavorable responses, Pike Research says utilities upgrading their infrastructure to include smart grid capabilities must do a better job of educating consumers about the benefits the smart grid can provide.

The favorability rating for smart grid varies by education level, gender and income. Those respondents who had household incomes in the $75,000-$125,000 range held a 48% favorability rating for the smart grid, versus 27% for those earning less than $35,000 annually. In addition, 41% of men held a favorable impression of smart grid technology versus 29% of women.

Within the education segment, there was a 23 percentage point difference in favorable impressions of the smart grid between respondents with the lowest education levels (25%) and those with the highest education levels (48%). Pike Research notes that these patterns are very close to the ones seen in previous years.

Early adopters of smart grid technology showed a substantially higher percentage of favorable responses (54%). In addition, those with higher electric bills (monthly bills of $300 or more) had the most favorable opinion of smart grid technology (59%).

The breakdown of responses to the concept of smart meters is nearly identical to that of the smart grid. Both concepts received a moderate number of favorable responses (39% for smart meters), few unfavorable responses (9%), and a relatively large percentage of unfamiliar or neutral responses (52%).

Demographically, more than half of consumers with incomes in the $75,000-$125,000 range gave smart meters a favorable rating. Asian-Americans also had higher favorable opinions of smart meters, as did respondents in the 30-44 age range. When examining the education segments, Pike Research found that the favorable responses ranged from 31% (for technical school/some college) to 47% (for those with a graduate degree).

Noticeable differences in favorable views of smart meters are apparent when viewed through the behavioral and political scope. Self-identified early adopters and early majority respondents stand out within the behavioral segments; 51% of early adopters and 50% of the early majority held favorable impressions of smart meters, compared to the average of 39%.

Those with electric bills in excess of $300 also held more favorable opinions of smart meters. There was no difference in regard to political affiliation, as 40% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans held favorable views of smart meters.

What stood out in the survey results for the smart grid and smart meters, Pike Research says, was the high number of respondents reporting they were unfamiliar with or held neutral opinions on these concepts. In general, the higher-educated, higher-income- earning male respondents had the highest favorability ratings for smart grid technologies, as did consumers with higher monthly electric bills. As smart grid and smart meter deployments and installations continue, Pike Research says it is clear that consumers are still learning about the energy-savings potential of smart grid technologies.

For more information on Pike Research's "Energy & Environment Consumer Survey," click here.

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