Survey shows high interest in biofuels

April 1, 2009

Most Americans want to know more about biofuels, according to a new survey fielded by researchers in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“These findings indicate people are really interested in this issue. Biofuels have received substantial media coverage over the past year, and the public is paying attention.”

Hernando Rojas

The national survey showed that 67 percent of respondents were interested in learning more about renewable biofuels. "These findings indicate people are really interested in this issue," says Hernando Rojas, co-investigator for the study and assistant professor of life sciences communication at UW-Madison. "Biofuels have received substantial media coverage over the past year, and the public is paying attention."

On the positive side, a majority of respondents perceive some clear benefits of biofuels, with 66 percent agreeing that using them can help the United States reduce reliance on foreign oil. Another 53 percent believed biofuels can have a positive impact on climate change trends by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Respondents had mixed opinions about the advantages and disadvantages of corn-based ethanol (an alcohol biofuel derived from the fermentation of corn), which has become a significant source of energy in the United States. More than 10 billion gallons of ethanol are expected to be included in the nation's fuel supply this year.

Respondents indicated some concerns about ethanol, with 44 percent believing that the production of corn-based ethanol will create pressure on the food supply, and 43 percent indicating ethanol will create pressure on local water supplies. Additionally, only 28 percent agreed that biofuels are a permanent solution to the energy problems in our country. Despite high general interest in learning about biofuels, only 24 percent said they were interested in using corn-based ethanol for their transportation needs, while 52 percent disagree, and 24 percent are neutral.

"Our historical data suggests public interest in ethanol may fall when prices drop at the gas pump, but interest will likely rise when oil prices go up again," says Bret Shaw, co-investigator of the study and assistant professor of life sciences communication at UW-Madison.

There were also gender differences regarding attitudes to biofuels in general and corn-based ethanol in particular. Women were significantly more likely than men to think biofuels are a permanent solution to energy and environmental problems, are more willing to use corn-based ethanol for their transportation needs, and perceive that corn-based ethanol exerts less pressure on food and water supplies.

"Public perceptions about the positives of biofuels outweigh the negatives, but the corn-based ethanol industry needs to continue to make their case for why ethanol should be a part of the solution to address the long-term energy needs of the United States," says Shaw.

The survey questions are part of the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project, a joint venture that brought together more than 60 researchers from 25 academic institutions, to conduct a six-wave panel study of 18,250 respondents throughout the United States. Surveys were conducted online. Data was collected by Polimetrix. Results reported here are based on a subsample of 1,191 that represents the general population with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percent (95 percent confidence interval), and correspond to observations collected between Nov. 5 and Dec. 1.