Environment

Clean Energy Is Booming in Historically Red States—and It's Splitting Conservatives Apart

Deep-red Texas now boasts more wind generating capacity than the next three biggest producers—combined.

The traditional American red barn in rural setting with wind turbines
Photo Credit: MaxyM/Shutterstock

The Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas just became the new home of the country’s largest rooftop solar installation, a sprawling 26,000-panel array smack dab in the middle of Sin City. The project is just the latest jewel in the crown for Nevada solar energy geeks. Just down the road on Interstate 15 sits the Ivanpah solar power station, the world’s largest solar thermal plant.

Despite Nevada’s emergence as a national leader on clean energy, Silver State legislators have intervened on behalf of power utilities to slow the growth of solar. In doing so, they have exposed a divide among conservatives when it comes to clean energy.

Recent policy fights have pitted right-wing grassroots activists against well-funded conservative advocacy groups aligned with fossil fuel producers and power utilities. These organizations may hold the upper hand for now, but the growth of renewable energy could shift the balance of power.

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. Source: Jamey Stillings

Clean energy is booming in historically conservative states

Americans of all ideological stripes love, love clean energy. Across the country, deep-red states are leading the charge on zero-carbon power.

Deep-red Texas now boasts more wind generating capacity than the next three biggest producers combined, according to the Department of Energy. As a portion of total generating capacity, Oklahoma, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa lead the nation. Iowa siphons nearly a third of its power from the sky. Soon, Carbon County, Wyoming, home of the state’s first coal mine, will cut the ribbon on the largest wind farm in North America.

Source: Department of Energy

On solar, a similar story plays out. Sun-drenched Arizona ranks second in the country for solar capacity. North Carolina comes in third. Reddish-purple Nevada boasts more solar power per capita than anywhere in the country. There are more solar workers in Clark Country, Nevada — seat of Las Vegas — than in 46 U.S. states.

Rapidly falling prices for renewables have made clean energy profitable in communities flush with wind and sunshine. Wind power is now the cheapest source of energy in the United States, even without government subsidies. Solar trails close behind. Last year, renewables accounted for more than two-thirds of new U.S. generating capacity.

The trend towards clean energy has motivated tremendous job growth. Today, there are more Americans working in solar than in coal mining or oil and gas extraction. According to a report from Synapse, an energy consulting firm, the shift to clean power could produce a net gain of 500,000 jobs a year between now and 2050.

Source: Department of Energy

Source: Department of Energy

Conservatives want clean energy

While renewables have a bright future, a curious thing happens where practice runs up against politics. In historically conservatives states at the forefront of clean power, public officials have opposed policies aimed at advancing low-carbon power.

Twenty-six states are currently suing to block the EPA plan to limit carbon pollution from power plants, including right-leaning renewable energy leaders like Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona and North Carolina. And yet, in each of these states a majority of adults support setting “strict CO2 limits on existing coal-fired power plants.” Nationwide, a majority of Republicans support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

You can see fights play out at the local level. Until recently, Nevada utilities bought surplus electricity from rooftop solar panels at the retail rate — what energy wonks call net metering. The practice made solar cost-effective for homes and business, but it threatened the bottom line of power companies. In a win for utilities, state legislators gouged net metering, dealing a blow to Nevada’s nascent clean energy industry. Solar companies are now fleeing the state, absconding with hundreds of jobs.

The fight over net metering exposed a rift among conservatives. On one side, conservative advocacy groups funded by electric utilities and fossil fuel producers oppose net metering. On the other side, Tea Party conservatives have aligned with left-leaning environmental groups in support of net metering. Together, these groups have fought for clean energy in OklahomaGeorgia and Florida, among other states. While Tea Partiers lack deep pockets, they are flush with public support.

According to a poll from the conservative ClearPath Foundation72 percent of Republicans want the U.S. to accelerate the growth of clean energy. Even those who doubt the human fingerprint on global climate change see clean energy as a force for good. Renewables represent energy independence, economic vitality and resilience in the face of a terrorist strike. Proponents say distributed solar panels and wind turbines are less vulnerable to attack than centralized power plants.

For Tea Party conservatives, the fight for clean energy comes down to a single word animating the vast populist movement — freedom. The homepage of TUSK, a right-wing advocacy group working for net metering, warns that utilities “want to extinguish the independent rooftop solar market in America to protect their socialist control of how we get our electricity.” Below, a statement from the group’s leader, Barry Goldwater Jr., says, “Republicans want the freedom to make the best choice and the competition to drive down rates.”

A solar array. Source: Karsten Würth

Clean power: not if, but when

The scrap between pro-fossil fuel, pro-utility conservative elites and pro-renewable Tea Party conservatives could be rendered moot by the steady march of technological progress. Declining prices for renewables mean that wind and solar are quickly displacing coal- and gas-fired power plants. And, with a little help from energy storage and energy efficiency, power grids will offer more and more zero-carbon power.

The question is not if, but when. Tax incentives, renewable energy mandates and limits on carbon pollution could accelerate the growth of wind and solar and help avert the worst that climate change has to offer. So far, such policies have been met with resistance. The fight over clean energy highlights the imbalance of power.

Right-wing clean energy activists are disperse. They are not organized to pursue broad national campaigns. Better-funded fossil fuel advocates have the advantage of concentrated power. Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council are highly organized with years of experience duking out legislative battles in state capitals and in Washington. But, as red states reap the benefits of clean energy — clean air, cheap power, job growth — the balance of power could shift.

States with the highest concentration of wind turbine technician jobs. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The growth of wind and solar would translate into greater political power for clean energy advocates. Tea Party organizers could stand on equal footing with energy utilities in policy fights, like the battle over net metering in Nevada.

“I believe conservatives who believe in the free market would be receptive to the right message,” said Tea Party leader Debbie Dooley in an interview with Midwest Energy News. “If you go out and say we need solar because of climate change and you hate coal, that’s the wrong message. If you go out and hold elected officials accountable for supporting these monopolies, that’s something conservatives will respond to.”

Jeremy Deaton writes about climate and energy for Nexus Media. His work can be seen in Popular Science, Scientific American, Business Insider, ThinkProgress, Grist and Sojourners, among other outlets. In his spare time, he manages theclimatechat.org, an online guide to the science of climate change communication.

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