U.S. green energy industry takes on fossil fuel lobby
ONEW PATH OF Reading the budget bill Democrats want is that it signals a new era of renewable energy in America. Once lagging behind European standards, the fast-growing industry is at the heart of Joe Biden’s plan to decarbonize the grid. Hence the Democratic effort to make more generous the tax credits enjoyed by wind and solar companies, push public services to buy more electricity than they produce and penalize those who do not. The administration estimates that the boost it would give wind and solar companies would enable them to provide more than half of the country’s electricity by 2030.
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Still, there are reasons to take a more cautious view of the outlook for the industry. Even if most of these stimulus were incorporated into legislation, it would be on a partisan basis. This would make them vulnerable to a Republican administration less pro-renewable, like the previous one was, and the next just might be.
Donald Trump, who falsely claimed that renewables were expensive and unnecessary and that wind turbines caused cancer, attempted to cripple the industry for the benefit of the fossil fuel producers and lobbyists he supplied to his administration. He abandoned Barack Obama’s main effort to reduce emissions from thermal power plants, from which renewable energies had everything to gain. It has hampered the solar industry with import tariffs. It opened up public lands and seas to oil and gas exploration, but not to renewables.
His administration also buried official research favorable to renewable energy – which investors rely on – and approved a fraction of his predecessor’s wind and solar projects. It’s hard to imagine a second Trump administration (a distinct possibility) sticking to a bold renewable energy strategy. And there are signs that Mr. Trump has politicized the issue in his party more broadly.
Most Republican politicians have at least acquiesced in the rise of renewables – which is why Congress has regularly renewed tax credits – even though they oppose an unambiguous policy on climate change. Still, Mr. Trump has inspired anti-renewable campaigns in several states, including North Carolina, North Dakota, and Texas, which have more wind and solar capacity combined than any other. Its ambitious governor, Greg Abbott, blamed a catastrophic grid outage in February on intermittent wind power – despite official findings that poorly maintained gas plants were mainly to blame – and ordered the state regulator to penalize the renewable energy industry.
It is the policy of Canaute. Even without subsidies, wind and solar power is often the cheapest new source available, so sure to grow. They are also popular, having created many jobs, especially in the Republican states. Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas are the main producers of wind power in the country. Texas employs almost as many people in wind, solar and electric storage as the entire mining industry that Mr. Trump used to harass. Why aren’t Republican leaders more convinced of such advantages?
The main reason is familiar. The US fossil fuel lobby is well organized, ruthless and entrenched on the right. Once scattered across the country, it is concentrated in a handful of those same conservative states, notably Texas and Oklahoma, where no Republican elected official dares to cross it. Yet his influence extends further. It has one of the most powerful lobbying operations on K Street and, through the operations of Charles Koch and other oil magnates, a network of think tanks and propagandists adept at blurring the lines between economics, libertarian ideology and conspiracy theory. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, linked to Koch, has raced in blaming the wind for the state’s recent blackout. Like the pro-gun lobby, another skilful evader of public opinion, the fossil fuel camp has also propagated a powerful conservative mythology. Unlike pampered renewables, it claims to be a preserve of free spirits, which is half true, and unsubsidized, which is not.
Until recently, the response capacity of the renewable energy industry was limited. It was for years too small to lobby effectively, and its various technologies made it slow to organize. It was therefore mainly represented in the battle for influence of environmentalists. It was a good way to win over Democrats. But it helped its right-wing enemies to warp the industry – now the source of about 20% of America’s electricity and over 400,000 jobs – like a left-wing mess.
Earlier this year, the leading wind power business group was relaunched as the American Clean Power Association (ACP), a multi-technology lobby. Its members include industry giant, NextEra Energy, which is nobody’s idea of hairy greenery. The Florida-based utility, whose market valuation last year briefly exceeded that of Exxon Mobil, has lobbied against rooftop solar panels and hydropower and is led by a registered Republican. “As a trillion dollar industry, we have to defend the economic argument for ourselves, not just the environmental argument,” said the trade association representative. CEO, Heather Zichal. Yet changing the policy of this issue will be more difficult than what the economy might suggest.
Even where renewables create a lot of jobs, they tend to be transient. It takes a lot of workers to build a solar or wind farm, but few to maintain them. Local support for such projects therefore tends to be superficial. This cannot be compared to the visceral attachment a small Appalachian community has to the coal industry, even years after its local mine closed.
Winds, but no change
And the fossil fuel lobby is not about to give up. By calculation, it exceeded its renewable energy counterpart by 13 to 1 last year. The lasting influence of mining also shows how long a well-organized lobby can outlive its economic relevance. Indeed, the sense of loss radiated by a dying industry was perhaps what made mining so appealing to Mr. Trump, the grievance stalker. The US energy economy is transforming; politics, not so much.■
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Green on Brown”