A spate of recent polls indicate Donald Trump's victory in November should not be taken as a ratification of his energy policy.
Last month, a Republican polling firm in North Carolina published a survey of voters in that state that found strong bipartisan approval for candidates who support expanding renewable generation and energy efficiency. That's notable in this politically significant state, which swung for Obama in 2008 but voted Republican in the last two presidential elections. It elected Democratic Governor Roy Cooper in November, but he has to contend with a strong Republican majority in the legislature.
The pollsters have three years of data showing that, while politicians who push for more fossil fuel development attract Republicans and repel Democrats, politicians who expand clean energy choices can draw a broad base of voter support.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration moved ahead last week with plans to scrap President Barack Obama's climate change policies, which were designed to shift electricity production away from coal and toward cleaner alternatives. The administration has prioritized coal extraction, while proposing budget cuts to Department of Energy programs that foster renewable energy innovation.
The North Carolina poll, along with other studies, suggests that even people who voted for Trump have different priorities about the future of American energy.
A few months ago, a different Republican firm, Public Opinion Strategies, found that 75 percent of Trump voters surveyed wanted action to accelerate the development and use of clean energy.
This week, the latest nationwide Quinnipiac University Poll found that 76 percent of Americans are very or somewhat concerned about climate change, and 68 percent say it's possible to tackle climate change while protecting jobs.
Energy never became a top-line issue in the 2016 campaign. How does voter sentiment in favor of expanding renewable generation influence state and national energy policy that's heading in the other direction?
North Carolina Republicans want more clean energy choices
Strategic Partners Solutions, a conservative issue management firm in Raleigh run by two veteran Republican political strategists, conducted the Carolina survey on behalf of Conservatives for Clean Energy. That client is interested in using renewable energy as an issue to get more Republicans elected; the pollsters want to understand voter sentiment.
Whereas the expansion of fossil fuels divides the North Carolina populace, the poll results show, renewables have the potential to excite a diverse coalition.
"You need to be looking for issues that lend themselves to a broader base of support rather than issues that have a narrow base of support," said SPS Principal Paul Shumaker, who has advised state Republican leaders over the past 30 years, including U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis. "If you want to build a broader-base coalition around energy policy, clean energy has to be in the mix."
A candidate who supports more fossil fuel development elicited mixed responses from voters -- 76.4 percent of Republican voters said they were more likely to support, but 60.5 percent of Democrats and 51.8 percent of unaffiliated voters were more likely to oppose.
When asked about a candidate "who supports policies that encourage renewable energy options such as wind, solar and waste to energy technologies," 83.2 percent of the whole survey population said they were more likely to support. That number has been above 80 percent for all three years of the poll.
(Image credit: Strategic Partners Solutions)
Among Republican voters, 79.1 percent were more likely to support. And among Trump voters specifically, 73.5 percent said they would more likely support a pro-renewables candidate.
"On the fossil fuels, you saw the Trump people really like that and the Clinton people really didn't like it," Shumaker said. "When you got into the clean energy, both voting sets were more inclined to be for it."
The implication here for a Republican putting together a campaign in North Carolina is that a choice to go full steam ahead with fossil fuels will make the base happy, but won't draw many voters from outside the base. A decision to embrace clean energy, though, will appeal to most Republican voters while also drawing in new support from outside of the party.
Republican candidates actually have more to gain from campaigning on renewables than Democrats, Shumaker said. Support for renewables among Democrats is already a given, but among Republicans, where it's not taken for granted, it can be a notable differentiator.
"The conservative embracing the clean energy set is like Nixon going to China," Shumaker said.
Efficiency and portfolio standards popular too
Voters favored legislation to support home or business energy efficiency upgrades by an even higher margin than renewables. Getting more specific, the pollsters asked about raising the state's renewable portfolio standard from 12.5 percent to 25 percent. This proposal split Republican voters just about in half, while drawing 60.5 percent support from Democrats.
(Image credit: Strategic Partners Solutions)
The pollsters then offered the anti-raise respondents further details about the effects of the renewables mandate, including job creation, increased local government revenues and rural economic development. After those additional insights, overall support for the higher RPS rose to more than two-thirds in each case.
That indicates that Republican politicians who talk to their constituents about the benefits of higher renewable energy deployment could draw support not just from a majority of Republicans, but also from Democrats. The key seems to be framing clean energy policy in terms of job creation and economic growth.
It turns out, most voters polled aren't satisfied with the monopolistic energy generation status quo, and want their state leaders to create more choices for electricity consumers. Republicans outpaced Democrats in their support for third-party electricity sales, with 81.7 percent.
Why this hasn't mattered at the ballot box -- yet
It's fair to question whether a poll on energy policy sentiment can accurately predict voter behavior.
The brief questions over the phone can't capture the complexity and ramifications of third-party electricity sales, for instance, or what a higher penetration of intermittent generation means for the balancing of the grid. Someone might be willing to voice support for renewables when that statement costs nothing, but balk at the prospect of paying a slight premium on the monthly utility bill.
It's also pretty much impossible to remove every trace of bias from a questionnaire, Shumaker noted.
"You could make the argument that 'clean energy' is already a biased term," he said. "What’s important here are the trend lines."
His firm has seen consistent sentiments over the years. The support for increasing the role of clean energy is not some blip in response to current events; it has legs.
As for whether the survey simplifies matters too much, recall that the actual energy discourse we saw on the presidential campaign rarely got more detailed. The issue barely surfaced in the debates. A poll that tested voter response to acronym-laden grid policy papers wouldn't have much to say about campaign rhetoric.
North Carolina voted for Trump by a 3.6 percent margin, so state Republicans did not vote based on their support for additional renewables. In the poll, a plurality of Republicans, Democrats and independents singled out jobs and the economy as the most pressing issue facing them today.
"Candidate selection is not one-dimensional; it’s not one issue," Shumaker said. "As long as energy prices and traditional energy sources are inexpensive, clean energy has a much harder job. This is more about a vision and a necessity for good planning into the future."
Clean energy's likeliest path to influencing the ballot is through its economic implications. Solar farms tend to go up in the rural parts of North Carolina, areas that have been hit hard by factory closures and a lack of economic development. Even if energy prices remain cheap, state lawmakers competing for rural districts could win points by supporting renewables as a way to bring jobs home.
"You’ve got to be looking at a policy that provides for stable supplies, long-term energy independence, coupled with long-term economic stability, not just for the consumers but for the producers as well," Shumaker said.
Trump got the votes he needed to decide national energy policy for the next four years. If the grassroots support for renewables observed in these polls becomes more visible, though, it could sway members of Congress up for election in two. They have the ultimate power to cut DOE funding or walk back renewable tax credits.
For renewables advocates, the challenge isn't so much convincing voters as it is getting them to vote based on their energy convictions.