The Right Targets Clean Energy
First they scotched a tax on carbon. Then they nixed a national cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions and tried to block an extension of subsidies for wind turbine production. Now the nation's fossil fuel-friendly think tanks and public policy organizations are taking aim at state-level policies promoting renewable energy.
At present, 29 states plus the District of Columbia have renewable energy standards that require utilities to get a certain proportion of their electricity from renewable sources by a certain date. Nearly two-thirds of the country's new clean energy capacity has been added in states with active or impending renewable energy standards.
Leading the movement to repeal them are the libertarian Heartland Institute-famous for its billboards last year comparing believers in climate change to murderer Ted Kaczynski-and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which crafts "model legislation" for conservative politicians to introduce in their home states. ALEC's major donors include Peabody Energy, the world's biggest private coal company; ExxonMobil; and ultraconservative dirty-energy industrialists Charles and David Koch. Exxon and the Koch brothers have also contributed to Heartland.
ALEC's fill-in-the-blanks vehicle to roll back clean energy is the Electricity Freedom Act, written by staffer Todd Wynn. It casts renewable energy standards as a regressive tax that, says Wynn, forces "citizens, businesses, and industry within a state to purchase renewable energy whether or not they value or can afford it." (ALEC's dedication to market freedom, however, stops short of opposition to the far larger taxpayer subsidies that go to the oil and gas industries.)
It's a tough argument, because clean energy is a good deal. When the nonpartisan Energy Information Administration evaluated an 80 percent national standard, it found that it would have "a negligible impact on electricity prices through 2022." Xcel, Colorado's largest utility, says that the state's renewable energy standard of 30 percent by 2020 will save its customers $100 million over 25 years.
The past two years have seen attempts to roll back or repeal clean energy standards in 10 states, and many more are expected. But such attempts can backfire. A move late last year to weaken Massachusetts's standard rallied environmental groups to defend the act and, ultimately, strengthen it.
Illustration by Steve Brodner
PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber