Conservative Folly: How the Right's War on Renewable Energy Could Doom Red States
This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
Despite impressive green economic growth during this country's job-challenged recovery, particularly in the wind energy sector, the conservative right is systematically seeking to reverse this trend by repealing state-mandated renewable energy targets, even if many of the states that stand to lose jobs and economic opportunity lean red.
Right-wing groups funded by the fossil-fuel industry and the billionaire Koch brothers are rolling out a nationwide assault to repeal state Renewable Electricity Standards (RES), a key component, along with such federal tax incentives as the wind production tax credit (PTC), in driving renewable energy growth in the United States.
Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia currently have a state-mandated RES (also known as a Renewable Portfolio Standard). Traditionally, the renewable electricity standard has received bipartisan support. Efforts in recent years to repeal or weaken state renewable standards have largely failed.
But a November 2012 Washington Post investigation revealed that the fossil-fuel and Koch-funded American Legislative Council (ALEC) and the climate-denying Heartland Institute are making this a nationwide priority in 2013.
Still, Jeff Deyette, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, called this assault on the renewable standard an "uphill challenge" for ALEC.
Deyette said that while not every state lawmaker is motivated to improve environmental benefits or tackle the climate crisis, most recognize the economic opportunities generated by growth in renewable technologies in their state.
"There are different reasons to support renewable technologies," he said. "I think that's why they've enjoyed such bipartisanship in the past and an important hurdle these opponents have to overcome."
More than half of these policies, Deyette pointed out, have been in place for five or more years and in many cases have already led to substantive industry growth and job creation in states.
"So it gets harder and harder," he added, "when you actually have a certain number of jobs or companies that are showing up at your door saying, 'If you pull the rug out from this policy, my job goes away.'"
Renewable Energy Economic Growth: Not Red or Blue, But Green
When Congress recently extended the federal production tax credit (PTC) for wind energy as part of its agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff, Kansas governor Sam Brownback cheered. A conservative Republican in a conservative state, Brownback has seen firsthand how wind energy has bolstered the Kansas economy.
After the extension, Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag told the Topeka Capital-Journal, "Gov. Brownback is pleased Congress recognized the positive impact the wind PTC has on creating jobs and growing the economy."
In a joint letter to Congress calling for the PTC extension at the beginning of 2012, Republican governor of Iowa Terry Branstad and Brownback called the wind energy sector "an American success story that is helping to build our manufacturing base, create jobs, lower energy costs, and strengthen our energy security."
Urging Congress to extend the PTC last November, Brownback said that the subsidy encouraged $3 billion of wind energy investment in the state in 2012. And in an op-ed co-written with Republican Kansas Senator Jerry Moran, they noted that if the PTC was allowed to expire, "local economies across our state will suffer," with Kansas counties standing to lose $3.7 million annually in payments from wind companies and landowners $4 million annually in additional income from leasing or selling their land for wind farms.
Kansas led the country with wind projects under construction in 2012, according to the American Wind Energy Association's Annual Report.
And a 2012 report by Polsinelli-Shughart Wind Energy Practice and the Kansas Energy Information Network, which analyzed empirical data from the 19 wind projects in operation or under construction in the state, found that wind energy generation "is equivalent to, or in some cases significantly cheaper than, new natural gas peaking generation"; "has created 3,484 construction jobs, 262 operation and maintenance jobs, and 8,569 indirect and induced jobs for Kansas citizens"; "revenues of over $273 million for landowners"; and "revenues of over $208 million for community organizations and local and county governments."
The report, prepared for the Kansas legislature, also concluded that "the Kansas Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) has become an important economic development tool for attracting new businesses to the state."
Brownback is a founding member of the Governors Wind Energy Coalition, which describes itself as "a bipartisan group of the nation's governors who are dedicated to the development of the nation's wind energy resources to meet America's domestic energy demands in an environmentally responsible manner -- while reducing the nation's dependence on imported energy sources and stimulating state and national economic development."
The group truly is bipartisan.
Of the 23 governor members, nine are Republicans, including, in addition to Kansas, GOP governors from other conservative states that have realized the potential of green economic growth in wind power, such as North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Texas is not a member of the governors' group, but the American Wind Association's Annual Report ranked the staunchly conservative state second in the country, right behind Kansas, with wind projects under construction in 2012.
According to the 2012 Texas Renewable Energy Industry Report prepared by the Governor's Office, Texas leads all states for wind energy generation, with over 22 percent of the nation's installed wind capacity. The report states that if Texas -- which has had a renewable electricity standard since 1999 -- "were a country, it would rank sixth in installed capacity."
And a recent assessment by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) found that, when updated figures and real-world projections were used, wind and solar are more competitive than natural gas over the next 20 years.
"Having the standards is what enables the market to grow rapidly," said Robert Pollin, a University of Massachusetts economics professor and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute. He said that if states were to overturn these renewable standards, they would be "shooting themselves in the foot" because wind is roughly already at cost parity with coal and "a huge market opportunity."
Deyette of the Union of Concerned Scientists agreed, saying, "There's certainly a lot of evidence pointing to state renewable electricity standards driving economic growth and jobs to places where the standards have been put in place, in terms of manufacturing as well as construction and operations and maintenance type jobs."
He went on, "You take any of these markets away, it would have an impact on both job growth and potentially loss of jobs as a result of eroding markets."
Deyette also noted that if a state like Kansas were to repeal its requirement, it wouldn't mean facilities there would just stop operating. Instead, he said, losing such a strong incentive to continue building more facilities in the state would have a negative "cascading effect" on all the industries involved in wind energy production in the state.
"So those construction jobs would go away," he explained, "but then anybody who's supplying components to the industry or maybe a small company, electricians who've been living off of going from major wind project construction in the state to the next one. If that market dries up, those jobs may go away, too, if they can't find an alternative place to get business."
The Future Is Now: Green Economies and Jobs Growing Nationwide
Nationwide, science-based economic studies and reports of real-world scenarios are favoring the growth of the renewable energy sector, and making it increasingly difficult for its opponents to ignore or deny.
A 2011 Brookings Institute analysis, "Sizing the Clean Economy," found that the clean economy already employs more U.S. workers than the fossil-fuel industry.
This wouldn't surprise Pollin of the Political Economy Research Institute, who also consulted for the Department of Energy during the Obama administration's first term. In 2009, Pollin found that, for every $1 million invested, more renewable energy jobs would be generated than would fossil-fuel jobs by more than a 3-1 margin.
More specifically, his analysis showed how clean energy investments will generate about 16.7 jobs per $1 million investment; whereas for the same $1 million investment in oil, natural gas and coal, only 5.3 jobs will be created.
The Brookings Institute study also found that "the clean economy offers more opportunities and better pay for low- and middle-skilled workers than the national economy as a whole," 13 percent higher than median U.S. wages.
Pollin said that the standard argument from the right is, "Well, if you do these environmental things it's bad for economic growth, it's bad for jobs."
"That's really the premise on which they also then say, 'We really don't know the climate science and why should we take risks with our living standards.'"
But he called the project of transforming the economy into a clean energy economy, based on investments in energy efficiency and renewables, "a great opportunity to create more jobs, reduce unemployment long-term and transform our energy system."
Pollin noted that transforming the economy to a sustainable green economy will inevitably hurt some areas of the country where coal, natural gas and oil is being extracted, but "the overall level of job creation across the entire labor market is going to be a positive by a lot."
A major 2009 study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that a national standard requiring all electric utilities to increase usage of renewable electricity to at least 25 percent by 2025 would create jobs, lower energy bills and reduce harmful pollution.
Specifically, such a standard would help create 297,000 jobs in manufacturing, construction, operations, maintenance, agriculture, forestry and other industries, along with $263.4 billion in new capital investment, $13.5 billion in income to farmers, ranchers and rural landowners, and $11.5 billion in new local tax revenues.
Similarly, a 2008 Department of Energy study found that if the United States supplied 20 percent of the nation's electricity through wind by 2030, it would create 500,000 jobs in the U.S., with an annual average of more than 150,000 workers employed directly in the wind industry.
So what's a fossil-fuel lobbyist to do with all this sanguine news on green prosperity and real-world potential?
Fixing the "Facts" to the Message
"The tactic," said Deyette of the Union of Concerned Scientists, "is to pay for a bogus study that shows that the costs are prohibitive and it's actually a job killer rather than job creator. Then find a champion in the state legislature who is more interested in supporting fossil fuels and keep hammering away at that message."
Which is precisely what ALEC and its cohorts have done.
ALEC, known for generating "model bills" written by the industry which are then championed in state legislatures by likeminded lawmakers -- some of whom are ALEC members themselves -- teamed up with the Heartland Institute to craft the model bill for this repeal effort, the "Electricity Freedom Act."
But energy analysts and economists who spoke with AlterNet all pointed out that this so-called model bill is essentially just a list of well-worn fossil-fuel industry talking points -- including unfounded claims like renewable standards drive up household electricity bills, kill jobs and economic growth, and the renewable sector isn't a reliable source of energy.
The Electricity Freedom Act, they also noted, includes no sources for its "facts."
To fill that gap, ALEC has cited one template economic analysis from the Beacon Hill Institute on the impact of state renewable energy mandates, which was paid for by Koch-funded foundations.
The faulty modeling on which the Beacon Hill Institute researchers based their conclusions, said Deyette, was then applied cookie-cutter-like in state after state as a method to sell the repeal of RES.
"There's this old adage -- the garbage in equals garbage out -- when it comes to energy modeling," he noted. "Meaning the assumptions you put into the model and the methodology by which you do the analysis has as much to do with the outcome as anything else."
They systematically inflated the cost of renewable energy in their assumptions while optimistically reducing the cost of fossil fuels, explained Deyette, both by ignoring recent price increases and the future need of significant portions of the coal power industry, particular to spending billions of dollars upgrading their facilities to meet public health standards.
"Ignoring those costs is one easy way to have fossil fuels come out ahead when you're comparing them to renewable energy," he said.
Deyette pointed out that they also skewed results by inaccurately modeling policies as they've been designed, such as not factoring in cost caps, which protect consumers against unexpectedly higher costs of developing renewable technologies.
"These usually have these safety valves in place," he said. "So if you ignore those safety valves in your analysis and you allow your inflated renewable energy costs to just run amok, that's also going to drive the results of your analysis towards a biased higher cost than what we've seen."
So in the end, armed with nothing but shoddy science -- and billions of dollars of influence -- and faced with real-world renewable success stories in state after state, what are ALEC's chances of success?
While Deyette thinks the push to repeal renewable standards might be an uphill battle, he was quick to note that if states are busy trying to prevent repeals as opposed to increasing their standards, then ALEC may view that as a victory.
Additionally, he said, "These [renewable standards] are very simplistic in their goals and more or less easy to explain, but they can be very complex when you look into the design elements and how they're implemented."
He cautioned, "So some simple language changes can have an equally negative effect as a full-out repeal."