Friday, August 9, 2013

State renewable-energy laws turn out to be incredibly hard to repeal

By Brad Plumer

With Congress deadlocked, a huge chunk of the action on clean energy in the United States is happening at the state level. Some 29 states and Washington D.C. have renewable standards requiring utilities to get a chunk of their power from sources like wind or solar.

Over the past year, conservative groups have made a big push to try to repeal these laws, arguing that the mandates drive up electricity prices (since wind and solar can be pricier than coal or natural gas in many cases).

What’s surprising, though, is that these attempts have been so unsuccessful — even in deeply conservative red states. As Matt Kasper of Think Progress documents here, repeal efforts by one major group have failed in every state so far:

“ALEC” refers to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has worked with the libertarian Heartland Institute to craft model repeal legislation, the Electricity Freedom Act. So far, the legislation hasn’t gained much traction.

Why have these pushes failed? One possibility is that, if you believe the polls, clean-energy sources like solar and wind are just broadly popular, even among Republican voters. That’s possible.

But another theory is that these laws have created their own constituencies, making them harder to repeal. Once a state starts bolstering wind and solar power, that jump-starts various industries — from turbine manufacturers to solar installers. Texas, for instance, now has more people working in the solar industry than it has ranchers.

Case in point: As Ryan Tracy has reported for the Wall Street Journal, many of these renewable portfolio standards have become popular with farmers, who benefit from wind projects on their land. They joined up with industry groups in states like Kansas and North Carolina to kill repeal bills:

In the Republican-controlled Kansas legislature, a bill delaying renewable-energy requirements failed to pass either chamber. Local manufacturers of wind-turbine parts joined farmers—who see revenue possibilities from leasing land to wind farmers—in pushing Republicans to leave the policy alone. …

Perhaps the most striking rejection of a repeal effort came in North Carolina, where the GOP holds supermajorities in both chambers of the state’s General Assembly and where renewable energy still represents a tiny percentage of the electricity supply. …

“I think it raised eyebrows that the swine industry and environmental interest groups were on the same side of this,” said Don Butler, vice president for government relations at North Carolina-based Murphy Brown LLC, the livestock-production unit of pork giant Smithfield Foods Inc.

Mr. Butler told lawmakers that since the 2007 bill passed, his company and others had together spent tens of millions of dollars developing technology to turn pits of swine manure into fuel for making electricity by capturing methane gas.

So now you’ve got pork multinationals, farmers, and turbine manufacturers all joining together. Meanwhile, in Georgia and Arizona, some tea party activists have allied themselves with the solar industry to promote certain regulatory tweaks.

On the whole, sources like wind and solar still play a bit part in the United States — if you exclude hydroelectric dams, renewable power provided 5 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2012. But that’s growing fast. State-level standards are projected to add some 76,750 megawatts of new renewable power capacity by 2025 — enough to power 47 million homes. (Hydropower provides another 7 percent of the nation’s electricity, though that’s often not included in these standards.)

And that growth has created a fresh set of companies and voters in favor of these laws. These policies aren’t necessarily easy to pass. But once they do pass, they’re hard to get rid of.

Further reading:

– The biggest fight over renewable energy is now in the states.

– Note that at the federal level, the Obama administration has proposed a “clean-energy standard” that would require utilities all around the country to get 80 percent of their electricity from low-carbon or zero-carbon sources by 2035. (Variations on this theme would include nuclear and even natural gas in some cases.)

Syndicated from Washington Post

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