Sign In or Create an Account.

By continuing, you agree to the Terms of Service and acknowledge our Privacy Policy


Protecting Nature Is More Important Than ‘Quickly’ Building Renewables, Most Americans Say

Nearly 80% of U.S. adults believe conservation is more important than a speedy renewable energy rollout, our poll finds. That spells trouble for Biden’s climate agenda.

Birds and wind turbines.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

In Virginia, environmentalists fought a utility-scale solar farm that would rank among the largest on the East Coast.

In New Jersey, an ocean-conservation group is battling an offshore wind farm that could power half a million homes.

In Utah, Nevada, and even the San Francisco Bay area, green groups are threatening renewable projects that officials say are crucial to meeting local zero-carbon goals.

Around the country, self-described environmentalists are trying to stop some of the same solar and wind projects that experts say are crucial to solving climate change. They are sometimes dismissed as NIMBYs or accused of being stooges for the fossil-fuel industry, and some groups literally are funded by oil interests.

But a new poll shows that their views — at least at the surface level — resonate with nearly four out of every five Americans.

An overwhelming majority of Americans say that conserving local land and wildlife is more important than building new sources of renewable electricity, even if that slows down the world’s response to climate change, according to the inaugural Heatmap Climate Poll, a scientific survey conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group last month.

The poll finds that even though Americans love renewables in the abstract — with 94% endorsing the benefits of rooftop solar and 88% embracing large-scale solar farms — they are skittish about their potential trade-offs. Some 79% of Americans said that new renewable energy should be rolled out “slowly” rather than “quickly” and that the conservation of land and wild animals should be prioritized above rapid greenhouse-gas reductions

In contrast, only 21% of Americans agreed with the statement that “we should roll out renewable energy quickly to lower emissions as fast as possible, even if it means harming natural land or wild animals.”

In other words, you don’t necessarily need recourse to astroturfing schemes or secret fossil-fuel connections to explain why so many Americans oppose new renewable projects. The Heatmap poll surveyed 1,000 adult Americans in all 50 states during a five-day period in February.

The results offer a warning to the Biden administration — and for that matter, anyone who seeks to decarbonize the American economy before the world sails past the 1.5-degree mark. In order for the United States to meet its goal of eliminating carbon pollution from the power system by 2035, the country’s physical infrastructure must transform at a pace and scale that has no peacetime precedent. Solar and wind capacity must quadruple nationwide, according to one estimate from the National Renewable Electricity Laboratory; up to 10,100 miles of new power lines might be required to hook those renewables into the grid. That build-out will be extremely difficult if Americans are susceptible to arguments that renewables are harming local flora and fauna.

“When you think about renewables you’re talking about an impact on the landscape that is beyond the scale of anything this country has ever seen before,” Larry Selzer, the president and chief executive of the Conservation Fund, one of the country’s largest buyers of conserved land, told me. “The IRA explicitly contemplates up to a million miles of new transmission lines and 65,000 miles of new pipelines.”

In contrast, the country’s last major infrastructure project — the Interstate Highway System — is about 48,000 miles long, he said. And much of it was built half a century ago.

“People intuitively understand the scale of investment [in the Inflation Reduction Act], even though it’s going to help save them and their communities” and ultimately protect wildlife, he said. “For most Americans, the idea of climate change is relatively amorphous and distant from their lives, yet they feel the loss of wildlife in a proximate way.”

Although the Inflation Reduction Act contains at least $25 billion to support conservation programs on agricultural and forestry land, this has not attracted as much attention as its clean-energy programs.

For climate advocates, the most upbeat finding in the poll might be that most Americans would be happy to add renewable energy near where they live, even if they want those facilities to have few trade-offs. More than 70% of Americans said that they would welcome the construction of wind turbines or large-scale solar farms in their community; more than 60% expressed comfort with a local geothermal power plant.

The only energy technology that most Americans did not want to live near is, ironically, the same technology that virtually guarantees local conservation. About one-third of respondents said that they would not welcome a new nuclear plant in their community, the poll found. Many nuclear facilities — such as the Calvert Cliffs power plant in Maryland — are surrounded by acres of protected parkland in order to ease local concerns. They also need far less space than other clean energy sources, like solar panels or wind turbines, to generate the same amount of power.

But perhaps that’s not so surprising: Americans’ view of the clean-energy future differs significantly from experts in several areas. Recent reports from a Princeton University team and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have projected that the IRA will reduce the cost of producing electricity nationwide. Yet nearly half of Americans said that they expect the move to renewables will raise their costs. Only about a third expect lower costs in the future.

This story was updated at 2:36 p.m. ET on Thursday.

The Heatmap Climate Poll of 1,000 American adults was conducted via online panels by Benenson Strategy Group from Feb. 15 to 20, 2023. The survey included interviews with Americans in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.02 percentage points. You can read more about the topline results here.

Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.


The Electrolyzer Tech Business Is Booming

A couple major manufacturers just scored big sources of new capital.

Heatmap Illustration/Screenshot/YouTube

While the latest hydrogen hype cycle may be waning, investment in the fundamental technologies needed to power the green hydrogen economy is holding strong. This past week, two major players in the space secured significant funding: $100 million in credit financing for Massachusetts-based Electric Hydrogen and $111 million for the Australian startup Hysata’s Series B round. Both companies manufacture electrolyzers, the clean energy-powered devices that produce green hydrogen by splitting water molecules apart.

“There is greater clarity in the marketplace now generally about what's required, what it takes to build projects, what it takes to actually get product out there,” Patrick Molloy, a principal at the energy think tank RMI, told me. These investments show that the hydrogen industry is moving beyond the hubris and getting practical about scaling up, he said. “It bodes well for projects coming through the pipeline. It bodes well for the role and the value of this technology stream as we move towards deployment.”

Keep reading...Show less
Electric Vehicles

Car Companies Are Energy Companies Now

The major U.S. automakers are catching up on Tesla’s power game.

A Silverado EV and power lines.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

It was my first truck-powered cocktail party.

General Motors had gathered journalists at a Beverly Hills mansion last week for a vehicle-to-home show and tell. GM’s engineers outfitted the garage with all the components needed for an electric vehicle’s battery to back up the house’s power supply. Then they tripped the circuit breaker to cut off the home from grid power and let the plugged-in Chevy Silverado electric pickup run the home’s lights and other electrical systems for the remainder of the gathering.

Keep reading...Show less

AM Briefing: Biden’s Coal Lease Crackdown

On the future of coal mining, critical minerals, and Microsoft’s emissions

What To Know About Biden’s Coal Lease Crackdown
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: Rain and cool temperatures are stalling wildfires in an oil-producing region of Canada • A record-setting May heat wave in Florida will linger through the weekend • It is 77 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny in Rome today, where the Vatican climate conference will come to a close.


1. Severe storms in Houston kill 4

At least four people were killed in Houston last night when severe storms tore through Texas. Wind speeds reached 100 mph, shattering skyscraper windows, destroying trees, and littering downtown Houston with debris. “Downtown is a mess. It’s dangerous,” said Houston Mayor John Whitmire. Outside Houston, winds toppled powerline towers. At one point 1 million customers were without power across the state, and many schools are closed today. The storm front moved into Louisiana this morning, prompting flash flood warnings in New Orleans.

Keep reading...Show less