U.S. Department of Energy - Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Deliberative Polling: Nebraska Utility Uses Customer Opinions in Decision Making Process

Deliberative Polling: Nebraska Utility Uses Customer Opinions in Decision Making Process

Date: 8/1/2003

Location: NE

Deliberative Polling™, a special survey developed by Professor James Fishkin at The University of Texas at Austin (Professor Fishkin is now located at Stanford University), reveals what participants feel about an issue after having had a chance to read, think, discuss, and ask questions of experts and advocates.

On a hot Saturday in Nebraska in summer 2003, 109 people participated in an 8-hour Deliberative Polling survey for their public utility. More than 60% of them had to travel more than 100 miles to take part. You are probably asking yourself, "Why would somebody do this?" The answer: to voice their opinion on topics that might affect their daily lives.

The survey in Nebraska was conducted by the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), a publicly-owned utility. Publicly-owned utilities are nonprofit, owned by the community, and operated by the municipality, county, state, public power district, or other public organizations. Citizens have a say in decisions and policies about rates, services, generating fuels, and environmental impacts.

The people that participated in the survey shared their opinions with NPPD on options for generating electricity. In a cover letter to the participants, NPPD President and CEO, William Fehrman, wrote, "Planning decisions are a series of tradeoffs. NPPD does not expect customers to make the final decisions but needs to know what customers value and what factors are important to our customers as part of our decision making process."

Survey participants were selected through random digit dialing and administered a questionnaire over the phone on electricity issues. After they completed the questionnaire, they were invited to participate in the survey conducted at NPPD's Customer Meeting. Two weeks before the meeting participants received an information packet that included a cover letter and an introduction to the issues that were to be discussed. The information packet defined useful terms to know, including types of customers, generation and transmission grid, and operation of the power grid and provided information about factors they needed to consider such as fixed (construction) costs, variable (operational) costs, load following capabilities, fuel costs, environmental considerations, advantages or disadvantages of each option, lowest cost, predictable bills, and reliability. The packet also provided background on NPPD's current generation mix, information about cost structure, generation needs for the future and planned units, and an introduction to fossil fuel options and renewables.

When participants arrived at the meeting, they were assigned randomly to eight small groups of 13 to 15 people. A trained, neutral moderator (not an NPPD employee) led each small group through a discussion of the issues. The major topic of discussion centered on whether NPPD should continue, decrease, or expand the system commitment to renewable resources. The specific project examples discussed included the addition of 200 MW of wind power by 2010 (5% of annual electricity) and 5 MW of methane generation (over 5 years) produced from animal manure. The two renewable examples were compared to fossil generation represented by a 250-MW combined cycle gas plant under construction and a 150-MW coal plant using "best available control technology" planned for operation in 2009.

Participants alternated between small group sessions and large group sessions where they were given the opportunity to ask questions of panels composed of subject-matter experts and advocates for different resources solutions. An outside moderator led the large group sessions.

Participants were paid an honorarium of $150 and those traveling over 100 miles (approximately 60%) were offered a hotel room and hotel meal vouchers.

The Customer Meeting was videotaped by NETV of Lincoln as part of a documentary on the event. The entire process was open to the press and observers.

NPPD's meeting was significant because it produced the first new Deliberative Polling data on energy alternatives in five years, it was the first application of Deliberative Polling by a public power entity (customer-owned versus investor-owned) and it was the first Deliberative Poll conducted in the Midwest. The poll also contained the highest sample of rural residents — 78% of the telephone sample participants live in an area with less than 50,000 people, reflecting the NPPD service territory.

More Information

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This information was last updated on June 10, 2015