Most Americans would prefer to live in a home where almost all major appliances run on electricity — but only if they can keep their gas stoves. Just 31 percent want to go fully electric.
Researchers asked roughly 1,000 people to what extent they would prefer to have their appliances powered by electrons or fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, or oil). It was the first time such a question was included in the long-running Climate Change in the American Mind survey, conducted by Yale and George Mason universities. The surveys, which started in 2008, are conducted biannually to track attitudes toward climate-related issues, such as electrification.
“We realized we didn’t really have a baseline for what people actually want,” said Jennifer Marlon, a research scientist at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication who helped design the question and push for its inclusion. Combine those who said they would go fully electric with the 29 percent who would do so except for their gas stove, and 6 in 10 Americans are ready to decarbonize. ”As a starting point, this is quite encouraging.”
Addressing residential energy use is critical to combating climate change, as the sector accounts for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Meeting the 2050 goals of the Paris Agreement will require an aggressive move to decarbonize the grid and move homes off of oil and natural gas onto efficient electric options such as heat pumps.
While the United States boasts one of the lowest rates of support for climate policies in the world, this polling question suggests many Americans are open to a more electric future. That said, the appetite for eschewing fossil fuels varies by political affiliation. Three-quarters of liberal Democrats, for instance, would prefer an all or mostly electrified home, while that number sits at half for conservative Republicans.
However, people across the political and demographic spectrum are very attached to their natural gas stoves — an affinity that was particularly strong among respondents who identified as Hispanic. Nationally, one-third of all homes use methane for cooking and when the Consumer Product Safety Commission said it might take steps to regulate gas stoves, it sparked a culture war. While that stickiness is perhaps evidence of industry efforts, dating to the 1970s, to promote the devices, the reality is they represent a small portion of residential energy consumption.
“If people did one thing in the home that really mattered, it would be to get rid of their gas [or oil] furnaces,” said Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor who has researched methane extensively. But, he added, there are clear health reasons for cooking with electricity.
“Gas stoves emit pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and benzene into the air we breathe,” he said, and nearly 13 percent of childhood asthma cases in the U.S. have been linked to the devices.
Beyond the gas stove caveat, there are other reasons to be cautious about the polling results, said Sanya Carley, an energy policy researcher at University of Pennsylvania. She says the framing of the question may have led to results that are particularly favorable to electrification. For example, using the term “fossil fuel” in contrast to “electricity” could prime people to choose electricity.
“People have far more extreme views when you’re talking about fossil fuels than they do when you’re talking about anything else,” she said, also noting that electricity is frequently generated by burning coal or natural gas. “I think it is either confusing to some people or misleading.”
The survey also told respondents to assume “costs and other features are the same.” That’s a big assumption, because the price and performance of gas, oil, propane and electric systems can vary widely. The cost of heat pumps, for instance, depends on state and local rebates, and homes in cold weather climates may still require backup sources of heating.
The language of the question was heavily vetted, said Marlon, and had to fit a national audience. Its aim was to elicit what people truly want in a way that allows comparison across various geographies and demographics. She also acknowledged that there is likely a gap between someone preferring an electrified home and someone actually taking steps to make that happen.
But, she said, arguably the most important part of the poll is that it sets a baseline that future polling can be compared to. The plan is to continue asking the question at least annually and ideally add in other more specific queries as well.
“There are a lot of questions we’d like to ask,” said Marlon. “We squeezed in this one question to get started.”