The New Political Reality for Clean and Renewable Energy

The New Political Reality for Clean and Renewable Energy


(Includes excerpts from Washington Post/Bloomberg article)

For decades renewable energy sources have been an issue for environmentalists and energy scientists. Solar, wind and biomass fuel sources were going to save the planet from traditional fossil fuels that can pollute the environment. That was the theory and belief anyway.

The problem with most of those clean energy alternatives was that the American free market made them too expensive to be viable alternatives to traditional energy sources like oil and coal.

That long-standing economic reality is changing.

The cost of wind and solar power has plummeted over the last decade, and so has the formerly solid opposition to renewable energy sources in the Republican Party.

A small and growing number of once-skeptical Republicans is now embracing and promoting clean energy sources, viewing them as ways to deliver cheap electricity, bolster America’s energy independence and fuel economic development in poor rural areas.

They also see them as a way to push economic growth nationwide. The renewable energy industries are adding jobs in North Carolina, Georgia and Texas, traditionally strong conservative constituencies that have been bastions of traditional fossil fuel supporters.

“This is going to change the discussion,’’ said Bob Inglis, a former six-term Republican congressman from South Carolina who now runs an organization promoting free-market solutions to climate change. “What I sense among Republicans is there is some belief that, yes, this does sound like a song we could sing.’’

Support for clean energy is not new for all U.S. Republicans. Some conservative state lawmakers in Iowa, Texas and elsewhere have long promoted it. When he was governor of Texas, George W. Bush pushed through legislation requiring utilities to buy renewable power, leading to widespread development of wind farms across the Lone Star State.

In fact today, according to the American Wind Energy Association, “Texas ranks first in the country for both installed and under construction wind capacity, while supporting over 24,000 wind-related jobs.” And due to this #1 wind energy market, the state is also, “home to at least 40 manufacturing facilities, including tower manufacturer Broadwind Towers and numerous component suppliers.”

Wind and solar farms are often built on farmland, and that has provided rental income for farmers and created a groundswell of construction jobs. Wind and solar companies employed nearly 300,000 people in the U.S. in 2015, roughly four times more than the coal industry.

The story is the same here in the Old North State where the clean energy industry has had a huge impact on the state’s economy. According to a 2015 industry census, clean energy accounted for well-over 25,000 jobs in North Carolina. Between 2008 and 2015, the construction and maintenance of renewable energy facilities pumped over $2 billion of investments into the state’s economy.

All of the top 10 wind-energy producing congressional districts are represented by Republicans, according to The American Wind Energy Association.

“It gives us a real leg up on economic development,” said Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican whose state ranks third nationally in wind energy production.

In Arizona and Georgia, grassroots organizations – including one founded by Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the 1964 presidential candidate – have advocated for solar to counter what they see as the monopoly power of traditional utilities. Conservative groups in Michigan, Ohio and here in North Carolina have emerged to promote clean energy. Conservative entrepreneur and philanthropist Jay Faison launched a super-PAC and plans to raise $5 million this year to support Republicans in congressional races who favor renewables.

“The left has owned the clean energy debate for too long,” Faison said in March. His foundation, ClearPath, found in a poll last year that 72 percent of Republican voters support increased development of renewables.

Meanwhile, clean energy has become less reliant on the government subsidies that fueled its growth, making it a less problematic issue for Republicans.

The average long-term contract price for wind power paid by utilities has dropped 60 percent since 2009, falling in some instances below $20 per megawatt hour. Those prices, which include subsidies, are on par with traditional fuel power prices in some regions. The drop in pricing for solar been even more dramatic, falling 65 percent with contracts as low as $37 per megawatt hour.

Drew Darby, a Texas state Republican representative whose district encompasses nine counties at the edge of oil country, said the proliferation of cheap wind power since the state spent more than $7 billion on new transmission lines has made him a believer.

“Republicans all over the country ought to be paying attention to what Texas did,” Darby said in an interview.

This new attitude is evident in the U.S. Senate with two recent actions.

A measure, co-sponsored by Sens. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat and Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, was introduced to restore $15 million in wind energy research funds. The amendment to the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (H.R. 2028) passed by a vote of 54–42.

“Wind energy is popular wherever it’s given a chance,” Grassley said. “New technology enables all kinds of renewable energy to advance. Research funding promotes the next wave of development. Wind energy deserves fair treatment among government support for different energy sources. This amendment gives wind energy the attention it deserves.”

During the debate on his amendment Senator Grassley noted that the traditional fossil fuel industries receive tax breaks totalling more than $4 billion in annual tax revenue. He also noted that the nuclear industry has received more than $74 billion in federal funds since 1950, and stands to get another billion in 2017.

Iowa leads the nation in power generation from wind, with more than 30% of its electricity supply provided by wind, and Oregon is one of a dozen states that generate at least 10% of their electricity from the wind. A Department of Energy’s Wind Vision report suggests that it wind energy could supply as much as 35% of electricity demand by 2050.

“Wind energy deserves fair treatment among government support for different energy sources,” Grassley said on the Senate floor. “This amendment gives wind energy the attention it deserves.” He also noted that Congress had long funded research for fossil fuels and nuclear power.

And just last week the Senate passed, on a 85-12 vote, the Energy Policy Modernization Act, (EPMA) sponsored by Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Republican chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee, and Maria Cantwell of Washington, the committee’s ranking Democrat.

The EPMA aims to fix the nation’s energy infrastructure, which has not kept pace with the energy innovations and is sorely lacking when it comes to managing the industry’s new realities. It includes provisions to promote renewable energy, improve the energy efficiency of buildings, and to cut some fossil fuel air pollution.

These most recent actions in the U.S. Senate, the ever-increasing investments in clean energy technologies by utilities like North Carolina-based Duke Energy, and the entrepreneurial free market forces at work in the renewable sectors is drastically changing the political landscape for energy policy.

North Carolina needs to be on the leading edge of this new reality.

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