In 1996, 8 Texas electric utilities polled their customers to determine what energy options they preferred to meet future electric requirements. The results were unanticipated; and affected commitment to renewables and efficiency as a result of what they heard from customers.
Problems and Purpose
As regulated monopolies, all electric utility companies in the state of Texas must periodically submit an Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for meeting the service territory’s current and future electricity needs. As part of this process, they were required by the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to take customer preferences into account. But meaningful preferences have been hard to uncover, because most people do not have well developed attitudes about these issues. One of the centerpieces of Converse’s (1964, 1970) seminal analysis of “non-attitudes” was a question asking whether “the government should leave things like electric power and housing for private businessmen to handle.” At least in ways, electric utility issues are an ideal topic for Deliberative Polling, precisely because the public knows even less about them than about most other important policy issues.
Background History and Context
Before Deliberative Polling, utility companies tried using focus groups and town-hall-like meetings. But standard focus groups provide very limited opportunity for learning, so the opinions harvested were still not very well informed. Nor, for that matter, were they reliably representative, since focus groups are small, nonrandom samples. The opinions at town-hall-like meetings were very well informed, because the meetings were attended chiefly by people representing special interests with a lot at stake, but for the same reason were wildly unrepresentative of the public at large. Deliberative Polls, in contrast, involve much more information (and better representation) than focus groups and vastly better representation than town-hall-ish meetings.
To date, eight utility companies with service territories wholly or partly in Texas have held Deliberative Polls. The first of this series was hosted by Central Power and Light (CPL) in Corpus Christi between May 31 and June 2, 1996, and the most recent by Texas Utilities (TU) in Dallas between October 16 and 17, 1998. In-between, at more-or-less equal intervals, were Polls held by West Texas Utilities (WTU) in Abilene; Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) in Shreveport, Louisiana; El Paso Electric (EPE) in El Paso; Houston Light and Power (HLP) in Houston, Entergy in Beaumont; and Southwestern Public Service Company (SPS) in Amarillo.
Methods and Tools Used
In each case, the basic design was the same. A random sample of roughly 800-1,500 was interviewed by telephone and invited at the end of the interview to attend the deliberative weekend. They were offered incentives of $50 for agreeing to attend and an additional $100-150 for actually attending and completing the post-deliberation questionnaire. Participants living far enough away were provided with transportation; the rest were simply told when and where to assemble. On site, they were fed and lodged in hotels. The official deliberations (as distinct from after-hours spillovers) were held either in a hotel or on a university campus.
The participants were sent briefing materials presenting all the major arguments for and against the major alternatives facing the company and were encouraged to study them beforehand. The briefing materials were assembled by committees representing a broad spectrum of stakeholder groups, including consumers, environmentalists, shareholders, the oil industry, and large industrial users. In every case the committee produced a document that all its members could agree was fair and balanced.
Each deliberative weekend began with some opening ceremonies, a preview of how the event would work, and a video reminding the participants of the issues and arguments covered in the briefing materials. The participants were divided randomly into small groups of 12-20, each led by a trained moderator. The proceedings alternated between small group discussions and plenary sessions, where the participants could put questions developed in the small groups to panels of experts of varying interests and perspectives. At the end, the participants were administered the same questionnaire as in the pre-deliberation telephone survey (plus some additional questions about their experience of the event).
The questionnaires varied somewhat from Poll to Poll. Those from the first three Polls by CPL, WTU, and SWEPCO were highly similar, while those from the remaining five were less similar to both the first three and one another. In varying degrees and versions, then, the questionnaires included items concerning sociodemographic characteristics, factual information relevant to utility issues, goals or values utility policies might be expected expect to serve (protecting the environment, ensuring a reliable energy supply, etc.), empirical premises (such as whether competition among utilities would lower electric rates), policy attitudes (toward proposals like building new fossil fuel plants or establishing green pricing), evaluations of the company’s performance, willingness to take part in specific optional programs like the installation of “smart meters” charging different rates at different times of day, and willingness to pay for specific policies, as in green pricing.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The questions from the first three Polls can be sorted under eleven headings, each to do with an important element of electric utility issues: building fossil fuel plants; importing power from outside the service territory; competition and deregulation; economic growth; economic well-being; improving the efficiency of electricity usage; minimizing environmental impacts; meeting the basic needs of all citizens, including the poor; minimizing rates; mixing energy sources; and increasing the use of renewable resources. Confirmatory factor analyses verified that all the items under a given heading tap the same underlying dimension
Consistent with our results in other Deliberative Polls, a majority of items across the three Polls, in this case 70 of 127, or roughly 65%, showed statistically significant change. Of the 32 summary indices (3 times 11, minus 1 for the one set of questions that was not asked at one site), all but five show statistically significant change, and two of the five exceptions come close (achieving significance beyond the .10 level).
What were some of these changes, then? Participants saw the merits of meeting future need for electricity by building fossil fuel plants, importing power, and increasing efficiency. Post-deliberation, participants attached less importance to effects for economic well-being, even as they continued to attach about the same importance to promoting economic growth. They also attached more importance to pricing electricity so that low-income customers can meet their basic needs. Another striking change was in the extra dollars participants said they would be willing to spend to achieve particular ends, like increased use of wind or solar power. Across the eight Polls, the percentage of those willing to pay something extra for this purpose increased from 52 to 84%, even though many of the people in these percentages were not volunteering to pay very much. Then, again, not that much per person would actually be necessary to finance some notable changes of policy. So our surmise is that many of the participants learned that many of the benefits they desired could be achieved with a very modest price increase. A couple of extra dollars per month could go a long way in investing in renewable resources or energy efficiency programs.
Some of the more interesting changes regard environmental quality and renewable resources. Although the magnitude is rather modest, there was an increase in support for protecting the environment. At the same time, there was some decrease in support for using more renewable resources, despite their potential for safeguarding environmental quality. The reason seems to have been increased realism. Before deliberation, many participants had pie-in-the-sky notions of what renewable energy could presently do, and at what cost. During the deliberations, they learned that the large scale use of renewable energy would presently be very costly and might entail some reliability problems. Thus the proportion of post-deliberation participants who indicated that renewable resources should be given the highest priority decreased. Yet, at the same time, the proportion who included renewable energy in their preferred portfolio of resources increased considerably. This is also evident in the increased importance that was placed on in using a mixture of resources to meet energy demands.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The polls have been successful in informing the participants about the issues involved. The participants felt empowered by considering seriously issues that may never have crossed their minds before. At the end, they participants were asked to rate their experience on a 0 to 10 scale, where 10 meant “extremely valuable.” A vast majority scored the poll a perfect 10. The mean was 9.4. Clearly, those who participated reaped large benefits for themselves, but they also recognized the benefits for the community as a whole.
Taken directly from https://cdd.stanford.edu/1999/deliberative-polling-and-policy-outcomes-electric-utility-issues-in-texas/