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CMU Study Highlights Importance Of Public Opinion In Energy Policy

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

In April, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would work toreduce greenhouse gas pollution by more than 50% from 2005 levels by 2030. To reach this goal, the U.S. will need to cut carbon emissions, which likely means transitioning from fossil fuels to low-carbon generation power sources, like solar power, wind power, and nuclear power.

But according to a recent Carnegie Mellon University study, making the switch to more sustainable power sources will require broad support from the public.

“There’s plenty of research that tells us that if we want to quickly and fully address climate change, then we really need all clean solutions on deck,” said Turner Cotterman, a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon University in the school’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy and co-author of the study. “And if we want to scale up these technologies very quickly, there can’t be any limitations to their full deployment. We need as much of this technology as is available as quickly as possible.”

Cotterman said the energy models used over the last few decades are “cost minimization focused” and fail to account for social acceptance. This study includes polling data to factor in how Americans feel about energy sources like nuclear power.

“Nuclear energy is low carbon, it emits very little CO2, and it could be part of a decarbonization plan. However, it has other environmental risks,” said Mitchell Small, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering & Public Policy at CMU who also worked on the study. But he noted that though nuclear energy is generally considered to be safe, potential problems such as accidents and leakages have discouraged public support for it in the past.

Cotterman said that though their study looked at nuclear power, the importance of public opinion can be extended to other power sources, including solar and wind power.

He said renewable energy technology makes decarbonization “mostly possible.”

“We mostly have all the technologies in place to reduce CO2 emissions to where we need them to be,” he said. But noted that’s only possible if renewable energy sources have support from the public.

“These two need to go hand in hand,” Cotterman said. “How they all fit together is really one of the critical elements we need to consider as we work towards rolling out a whole host of technologies to address climate change.”

Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at