There’s a current fashion in polling to ask questions designed to show that the public are wrong about particular issues. MORI got lots of coverage for a poll in 2013 revealing how badly people misperceive facts about UK life; they did a similar poll last year, replicating the results internationally.
A poll for RenewableUK has today done the same thing for wind power. It showed people overestimate 14-fold the amount consumers are charged through their electricity bills to subsidise wind energy. It also found a large majority under-estimate the popularity of wind power among the public overall.
Neither of these is particularly surprising. Wind farms have a reputation for facing local opposition, while some newspapers spend much of their time emphasising subsidies for green energy.
But in terms of their significance, I think the two questions are very different.
Finger in the wind
The apparent overestimate of the subsidies given to wind farms doesn’t feel that important. I’m sceptical that the average response of £259 subsidy in a £1300 bill is a meaningful answer, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, there may have been an anchoring effect in the poll. The question referred to a figure (£1300) as the average bill. Plenty of studies have shown that doing this skews responses towards that figure. I suspect the answer would have been much lower if the figure hadn’t been quoted in the question.
Secondly, people don’t seem that influenced in their views of wind power by the perceived level of government subsidies. We know from many polls that wind is among the most popular sources of power, even when built locally. We also know that people are far more likely to blame rising bills on energy company profiteering than on green levies.
So I suspect the finding on subsidies isn’t that significant. It’s artificial in that people largely haven’t thought about a figure before; when prompted they pluck a figure from the air (possibly anchored upwards); but their dominant view is that rising prices have been the fault of energy companies, and they still like wind power.
Spiral of silence
But the meta-question – what do you think people think about wind – is much more interesting and worrying to me.
This is partly because it provides a possible basis for what some have described as the Climate Silence: the way most people are worried about climate change, yet largely seem reluctant to talk about it because they think it’s an unpopular issue. Thinking that most people don’t like renewable energy might feed this silence; it might also feed a view that personal efforts to reduce emissions are wasted when others aren’t interested in doing so.
And specifically on wind power, the result fits neatly with what other polling has shown about some MPs’ views of wind power. Despite the popularity of wind power, just 16% of Tory MPs support onshore wind. Perhaps part of the reason may be that they, like most of the public, think wind power is much less popular than it really is*.
This seems important to me because decisions about whether or not more wind power plants are to be built may be shaped by this continued misunderstanding of the popularity of wind turbines.
*I suppose another option is they also think it’s much more subsidised from energy bills than it really is.