By Mike McGrath
Driving across the scrublands of West Texas, motorists unfamiliar with the territory are confronted with a strange and unexpected sight—the giant wind turbines dotting the landscape as far as the eye can see. The Roscoe Wind Farm, a sprawling complex that encompasses parts of four counties, is capable of generating enough energy to provide electricity for more than 230,000 homes.
Texas, the spiritual home of Big Oil, is now the biggest generator of wind power in the United States. According to an article in USA Today, Texas now produces one quarter of the nation’s wind power. In fact, if Texas were still an independent republic, it would rank fifth in the world when it comes to wind generation.
The emergence of the Lonestar State as a world-class purveyor of renewable energy seems anomalous. Wind and solar energy are often associated with liberals and environmentalist groups, not rugged individualists from deep in the heart of the Oil Patch.
But the rise of Texas as a mighty wind power was far from accidental. During the late 1990s, an unusual period of bipartisan cooperation in the state capital of Austin resulted in support for renewable energy sources from Republican Governor George W. Bush, the Republican Public Utilities Commissioner and the Democratic leadership of the state senate.
The story of how this unexpected bi-partisan, public policy success occurred is well told in the book, The Great Texas Wind Rush, by journalists Kate Galbraith and Asher Price. But there is another aspect of this story that merits retelling in this time of bitter political conflict and polarization—the role that deliberative polling played in demonstrating public support for alternatives to fossil fuel consumption.
In the late 1990s, eight electric utility companies in Texas participated in an ambitious experiment in public consultation, using an approach to opinion gathering known as “deliberative polling.”
Deliberative polling was the brainstorm of James Fishkin, a professor and director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University. In the late 1996, Fishkin was a member of the University of Texas faculty when he was asked to help the utility companies survey the ratepayers’ views on how to prioritize sources of energy.
One of the assumptions of advocates of deliberative polling is that ordinary opinion research too often reflects the uninformed, surface thoughts of individuals who had not considered the potential arguments for and against a given policy choice or the tradeoffs necessary to implement them. Deliberative polling combines an ancient element of classical democracy, the random selection of citizens, with modern ideas about public deliberation and meeting facilitation.
In Texas, groups of randomly selected ratepayers were contacted by phone and given opinion surveys on energy policy, and then invited to participate in face-to-face town hall meetings that were to be held over the course of a weekend. Each participant was given briefing materials prepared by groups of stakeholders representing a range of ideas about some of the decisions facing the utility companies.
Participants were divided into small discussion groups of 12 to 20 members with one trained moderator to facilitate. There were also plenary sessions where the participants would be given opportunities to pose questions to a panel of experts representing a variety of viewpoints. Representatives of the utility companies and the Texas Public Utilities Commission participated in the town hall weekends as experts and small group moderators.
At the end of the weekend, the participants were given the same questionnaire they had answered in the initial phone interviews. The results of the deliberative polling surveys were surprising to the utility company officials and state policymakers.
The polls had consistent findings across the eight utility service areas—strong support for renewable sources and for improving energy efficiencies and conservation, weak support for prioritizing the use of fossil fuels. The survey results suggested that ratepayers might even be willing to pay extra to encourage the companies to rely less on non-renewable sources of energy.
Interestingly, there had been even stronger support for renewables before the deliberative process. “After education and deliberation, there was an interesting transformation in these preferences,” noted the authors of a report published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “In many cases, the percentage of customers favoring renewable energy as the first option for utilities to pursue decreased, sometimes dramatically. In every case, the percentage favoring efficiency as the first option increased. After becoming more educated on the issues, customers still had a strong interest in renewables but a much greater interest in efficiency than before the event.”
Taken together, however, the final surveys indicated strong customer support for alternatives to more fossil fuel use, a finding that the energy company and the Texas Public Utilities Commission took to heart. “Hearing average citizens discuss energy policy tradeoffs in relatively sophisticated terms had an impact on the event observers,” the NREL report concluded. “These impacts occurred at emotional (or qualitative) levels rather than as reactions to the numeric survey poll results.”
Observers, the report added, “saw that the public was able to master the material and develop individual opinions. Customers understood the tradeoffs between resources, including the cost implications. The same basic pattern of results was replicated eight times. Having been exposed to this experience, it was difficult for either utility personnel or regulators to ignore the customer opinions.”
The results of the deliberative polling project were not lost on the state’s political leadership. In 1999, the Texas legislature passed a bill to amend the state’s utility code to allow for competition in the retail electricity market. The bill required all for-profit electricity providers to obtain about three percent of their electricity supply from renewable energy sources. The legislation also set more ambitious goals for energy efficiency and conservation.
The new focus on energy savings and renewables by the eight energy companies and the support of state government created an environment that was favorable for the development of a nascent wind farm industry. Of course, there were multiple factors besides the deliberative polling that led to Texas becoming a leader in renewable energy source. With improvements in technology and the cost of equipment, renewable sources began to look more desirable over time. Ranchers and oil producers realized that there was money to be made in wind.
But the deliberative polls helped point the way to a new future by showing that “customers preferred renewables and efficiency more than fossil fuel alternatives and that they were concerned about the environment,” according to the NREL report.
“Customers also had practical concerns about stable, low cost energy over the long-term. The results were not anticipated by either the utilities that sponsored the polls or by the Texas PUC, whose commissioners and staff participated with customers in the town meetings. As a result of this customer feedback, both the utilities and regulators changed their level of interest in—and commitment to—renewable energy in Texas.”
Since that experiment in Texas, deliberative polling projects have been undertaken in communities all over the world, from Porto Alegre, Brazil, to South Korea. Last October, hundreds of residents of Dallas, Texas participated in a project called “America in one Room,” a deliberative polling effort that asked participants to consider five policy proposals on hot button issues such as immigration, health care, the economy, the environment and foreign policy.
As with the deliberative polling by the utility companies, the participants were given questionnaires before and after the event. They were given briefing books to provide information on the issues before meeting for small-group discussions and plenary sessions informed by expert panels.
As James Fishkin and Larry Dimond wrote in a New York Times opinion piece, the experiment produced “notable changes of opinion. In randomly assigned groups of about a dozen, they spoke face to face across their divisions with neutral moderators. The most polarizing proposals, whether from the left or the right, generally lost support, and a number of more centrist proposals moved to the foreground. Crucially, proposals further to the right typically lost support from Republicans and proposals further to the left typically lost support from Democrats.”
Like the Texas utilities experiment in the late 1990s, the America in One Room project underscores the human potential to overcome differences and think more carefully and deeply about complex policy issues, whether it is energy sourcing or immigration. Partisan politics and competitive elections don’t always allow ordinary people enough opportunities to deliberate in a clam and informationally rich environment.
Many authors and political thinkers have warned in recent years of a crisis in democracy, but it may still be true, as the social reformer Jane Addams wrote in the early 1900s, that the “cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”
Mike McGrath is Editor of the National Civic Review.