WASHINGTON — As summer beckons, it seems Americans are thinking more about the stifling cost of energy than about making tracks to the beach.
Cutting energy bills and use is a bigger deal to them than taking a vacation or scoring the latest smartphone or tablet, according to a survey by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that asked people to choose priorities. Not even 1 in 5 ranked a summer trip or the latest gadget as a priority, while majorities said reducing electricity use and making homes energy-efficient are important. But in typical American fashion, by far the highest priority was having a reliable set of wheels.
The poll, paid for by a grant to the AP-NORC Center from the Joyce Foundation, shows that energy, especially in a weak economy, is prominently on people's minds — and may explain why it's being talked about in the presidential campaign. Nearly 8 in 10 called energy deeply important to them, trumping concerns about the federal deficit and the environment. The only issues that polled as higher concerns were the economy, education and health care. Almost three-quarters said gasoline prices were important to them personally, although those prices have abated since the poll was taken.
There are limits, though, on what people are willing to sacrifice for a more energy-efficient life.
Nearly 9 in 10 people said they had taken some action in the last year to save energy, with those making less money and on a tighter budget saying it was more important to make their homes more efficient or save money on energy. The idea of changing transportation habits rated as among the most difficult energy-saving actions for people to take.
Linda Pence, 50, in Spring Valley, Calif., buys everything organic, recycles, grows her own vegetables and doesn't turn her air conditioner on unless the oldest of her five cats starts to pant in the Southern California heat. Her highest priorities are buying environmentally friendly products, reducing the electricity she uses, saving money on energy and making her home more efficient. She wishes she could afford the up-front cost of solar panels.
Without serious conservation, she says, "the kids coming up are not going to have the resources they need. They are not going to have a planet to live on."
But in the driveway, she's got a Dodge Durango and a Lincoln Continental, neither squeezing out 20 miles to a gallon in combined city-highway driving, as well as a more economical Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Indeed, about half in the poll said they would find it difficult in the next year to take steps such as buying a more fuel-efficient car or carpooling. This, despite knowing that such changes would make a difference. A clear majority — 64 percent — said Americans use a lot of energy and are unwilling to reduce their demand, making that the most frequently blamed reason for the country's energy problems
Smaller steps, such as turning off the lights, turning down the heat, installing more energy-saving appliances and driving less, were the more common ways respondents said they chose to reduce energy in the last year.
"Americans are extremely wasteful," said Army veteran Jerry Winter, 39, of Arnold, Mo., reached during a vacation. Instead of going away, Winter, a disabled vet, was attending the 26th National Veterans Golden Age Games in nearby St. Louis.
Winter said his energy-saving habits were influenced by being stationed in Germany twice over his military career. "I was in Europe five years, and they make us look like a joke," he said.
Margaret Edenfield, 83, from Marianna, Fla., was more willing than many to change her transportation routine to save money and gas. About a year ago, she started alternating driving with her neighbor next door.
"We have a deal where she drives one time, and I drive one time," said Edenfield. "I don't fill the car but once a month."
For Edenfield, ranking energy savings above a summer vacation was an easy choice.
"I'm by myself. I'm a widow," she said. "I wouldn't have someone to go on vacation with."
The survey was conducted from March 29 to April 25. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,008 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Associated Press Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report. Follow Dina Cappiello's environment coverage on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/dinacappiello
AP-NORC poll: http://www.apnorc.org