Polling shows West Virginians open to energy transition

CHARLESTON — A poll commissioned to gauge public support for West Virginia’s energy economy shows that some state residents are aware that changing needs could result in a transition to cleaner energy sources and new kinds of jobs.

The Nature Conservancy and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce held a briefing Thursday detailing the results of a poll on West Virginia’s energy economy.

The poll was conducted by Research America between June 21 and July 2 with 400 registered voters in West Virginia. Rex Repass, president of Research America, said in addition to the 400 sample, his group included an oversample of 100 registered voters within coal country, representing 28 counties in both southern and northern coal-producing counties in West Virginia. The survey has a 95 percent confidence level with a 5 percent margin of error.

“We had 28 counties in our sample that were coal country counties,” Repass said during a conference call Thursday to explain the data. “That extended from as far north as Brooke County to as far south as McDowell County. We had very good representation … within that coal country category.”

According to the poll, 70 percent of coal country respondents said the most important thing elected officials can do to help their communities is job creation. Another 14 percent of those in coal country said elected officials should support the coal industry in their communities, and 12 percent said lawmakers should support investments in clean energy and a phase out of coal for energy production.

Repass said both supporting the coal industry and supporting investments in clean energy were mentioned with nearly equal frequency to pollsters via online and phone polling without being prompted or aided.

“West Virginians believe in the coal industry. It’s part of the culture and there’s a desire to support the coal industry,” Repass said. “But there’s also a desire to support clean energy and the creation of jobs potentially as coal changes, and coal has been changing in terms of the importance in the economy for a number of years.”

When asked if respondents agree with the statement that coal is the backbone of the state and that renewable energy is hurting mining jobs, 59 percent of statewide respondents and 59 percent of coal country respondents agreed. But when asked whether they agree that the economy is shifting away from coal and fossil fuels towards clean and renewable energy sources, 69 percent of statewide respondents and 73 percent of coal country respondents agreed.

Another 90 percent of statewide respondents and 95 percent of coal country respondents could identify the benefits of shifting focus from the traditional energy industry in West Virginia towards clean energy production, including the use of carbon capture and sequestration and renewable energy (wind/solar/hydro).

When asked their perception of what energy sources are clean, 67 percent of statewide respondents said coal was not clean energy, while 67 percent of coal country respondents agreed that coal was not a clean energy source. Solar power was considered the cleanest energy source by 85 percent of statewide respondents, while 92 percent of statewide respondents said wind power was the cleanest.

For coal country, jobs were considered the most important concern. When asked from a number of options which would be the most beneficial, 18 percent said new jobs. When coal country respondents were asked if they would be willing to move to another part of the state for employment, 49 percent said they would be willing to move.

When rating various community programs, 76 percent of coal country respondents said continuing health and pension benefits would be most beneficial, followed by 68 percent supporting government programs that can create new jobs in the clean energy industry and 68 percent who said tax incentives to bring new investments in clean manufacturing would be helpful.

Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy brings together the business community and environmentalists to develop solutions for conserving land and water. Thomas Minney, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in West Virginia, said the poll results show that West Virginians are open to energy transition.

“One of the major findings here is we value our heritage, but we’re also looking to our future and we’re looking at our future through the lens of economic security and prosperity,” Minney said. “We really need to think about what are the messages that we can match to West Virginians and the opportunities that we can match to West Virginians there as we work on this together to make a place where people and nature thrive.”

Brian Dayton, vice president of policy for the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said the poll results show that West Virginians are aware of the national trends towards cleaner energy. Dayton said many of the businesses they try to recruit to the state often have requirements to obtain some of their energy needs through some form of renewable energy.

“Whether it’s solar, wind, or hydro, there typically is a requirement from a lot of these companies that they want to be able to say they get some of their energy from those,” Dayton said. “We support at the Chamber, certainly, an all-of-the-above energy approach. But I think there’s an appreciation as we’re seeing some of these energy sources coming into the state that the voters are supportive of that. And I think that’s very important.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)


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