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Knowledge on power  

The state is part way through its half-million-dollar effort to gauge Vermonters’ opinion on how electricity should be generated.

Three of five polling workshops have been held – and a more elaborate process, called “deliberative polling,” which aims to tap the knowledge of a broad cross-section of the state’s population, will be held this weekend.

Stephen Wark, the Public Service Department’s consumer affairs director, is pleased with the attendance. “We had hoped for 100 people to come to each site, a maximum of 500 – and everyone just laughed and said, ‘There is not going to be that many.'”

More than 700 people have registered for the workshop series, said Jonathan Raab, president of Boston-based Raab Associates Ltd., which was hired to run the program. The largest draw has been the South Burlington workshop, where 150 people attended.

Workshops, which cost $146,000, have been held in St. Johnsbury, South Burlington and Montpelier. The final two will held this week in Springfield and Rutland.

The purpose of the workshops – and the more in-depth, two-day “deliberative polling” session – is to learn how Vermonters want policy makers to proceed as contracts responsible for two-thirds of the state’s electricity begin to expire in 2012. Public engagement on energy issues was required by the legislature last year, Wark said.

“This leaves the future source of Vermont’s electricity open for discussion and examination,” Public Service Department Commissioner David O’Brien wrote to those randomly selected to participate in this weekend’s energy discussions. “Choices about the future will have to be made and we will have to weigh trade-offs among cost, reliability, environmental impact, large and small scale generation, and in- versus out-of-state sources.”

“Vermont needs your help in shaping the future mix of electricity sources for the state,” he wrote.

Combined, the studies constitute the largest energy sampling ever conducted in the United States, Wark said. Rate charges on utility bills and state tax dollars will be used to cover the cost.

State’s unique mix

Vermont’s energy mix is weighted heavily toward large-scale hydroelectric power – supplied by Canada’s Hydro-Quebec – and nuclear power, generated by Entergy Corp.’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon. The state’s energy portfolio is very different from the national energy mix.

Last year, the United States generated 49 percent of its electricity by burning coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. None of Vermont’s power came directly from coal plants. Vermont, however, leaned on nuclear power for more than a third of its electricity, substantially higher than the 19 percent for the U.S..

Vermont’s energy mix has given the state the lowest “carbon footprint” in the nation, according to O’Brien.

“There are pluses and minuses to each energy source,” Wark said.

The cheaper sources are nuclear, hydro-electric and coal, he said. “But what is the environmental cost? How does that factor in?”

Workshop participants are asked about 50 questions through “keypad polling” that allow results to be seen immediately. “It’s very cool. And people are riveted,” Raab said.

Generally speaking, energy efficiency and hydro-electricity are heavily supported, Raab said. Wind is also “pretty well” supported; people who live in Burlington and Montpelier, however, are typically more likely to tolerate a wind farm that can be seen from their home than people who live in the Northeast Kingdom, he said. Workshop participants also have been “less enthusiastic” about electricity generated by oil, coal and nuclear plants, he said.

Since anyone can register online to attend the workshops, the participants are self-selected and often come to advocate for or against a particular type of power, Wark said. Few businesses owners have attended the workshops, he noted.

Before polling, workshops include a 20-minute presentation, small group discussions and an opportunity to pose questions to a panel of experts, Raab said.

Global warming, electricity costs and public safety issues help guide people’s opinions on energy supply, Wark said. “People care a lot about the environment. And people care a lot about cost. It’s very difficult to have something that’s clean and also cheap.”

The $334,000 deliberative polling project, lead by Robert Luskin of the Center for Deliberative Opinion Research at the University of Texas, is designed to learn what average Vermonters think.

‘Deliberative’ polling

Starting at 8:30 Saturday morning, about 200 Vermonters, intended to represent a cross-section of the state, will spend the weekend considering how Vermont should develop its energy policy.

Participants are supposed to have read a thorough, 86-page analysis on electricity issues facing Vermont, provided by the Public Service Department, before arriving. Participants will each receive $150, a free night’s stay at the Sheraton Burlington Hotel and Conference Center in South Burlington and five meals, Wark said.

Starting three weeks ago, the process began contacting 1,200 people from across the state at random. About 200 of those people, again, selected at random, will be invited to spend the weekend hashing out how they want the state’s energy portfolio to look in the years ahead. This is the first application of deliberative polling on energy in New England, O’Brien said.

The deliberations will be held at about 15 buildings throughout the University of Vermont.

“We plan to make them work for their money,” Wark said.

Conclusions from each study are expected to be complete by the end of December.

“Our goal here is to reach out, provide education,” Wark said. “But also learn from people … what they want for their energy future.”

By Dan McLean
Free Press Staff Writer

The pollsters, on the Web

RAAB ASSOCIATES LTD.: www.raabassociates.org

CENTER FOR DELIBERATIVE OPINION RESEARCH: communication.utexas.edu/strauss/
CDOR/dor_index.html About ‘deliberative polling’

A deliberative poll combines a before-and-after survey with a systematic effort to provide respondents with balanced information and the motivation and opportunity to discuss the issues.

The process begins with a random, representative, sample. The sample members are interviewed and then invited to attend a discussion of the issues, for as little as a day or as much as a weekend. They are sent carefully balanced briefing materials that present arguments on all sides of the question.

During deliberations, participants discuss the issues in moderated, randomly assigned small groups and ask experts questions.

Another survey is given to the participants at the end of the discussions.

Results of both surveys reveal changes in opinion. Past deliberative polls show many participants change their views after learning, thinking and talking about issues.

Source: Center for Deliberative Opinion Research, Univ. of Texas. Polling the people WORKSHOPS: Monday at 5:30 p.m. at the Dean Educational Center in Springfield; Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at the Holiday Inn in Rutland; registration required.

DELIBERATIVE POLLING: Saturday and Sunday, University of Vermont; invited participants only.

To attend the regional workshops, register online at www.vermontsenergyfuture.info.

Burlington Free Press

28 October 2007

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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