The Next Election’s Swingers

William Becker* – Huffingtonpost

In case it isn’t obvious, Congress’s mid-term election campaigns have already begun, with voters and potential challengers watching how incumbents handle several tough issues on the agenda including tax reform, infrastructure modernization, and tens of billions of dollars in unexpected federal spending due to weather disasters.

The nation’s energy and climate policies are important to each of these big issues. Tax reform can level the market’s playing field for renewable energy technologies. Infrastructure projects must be able to withstand extreme weather events. They can and should use low-carbon concrete, steel and other materials. Long-term federal spending on disaster relief and recovery will push the nation into irredeemable debt unless we transition as soon as possible to a low-carbon energy economy.

Over many election cycles, voters have told pollsters that they prefer clean energy, especially renewable energy resources such as sunlight and wind, over fossil fuels. Clean energy and climate action advocates have encouraged voters to make those issues decisive at the ballot box, but other concerns like jobs and the economy have eclipsed energy and environment.

This election cycle could be different for several reasons: Solar and wind power have shown they are good for both jobs and the economy; they are less expensive than the electricity generated by natural gas and coal; big corporations are making ambitious commitments to use renewable energy; more voters are acknowledging the connection between weather disasters, carbon pollution and fossil fuels; and the head Republican, Donald Trump, is ignoring voter sentiment on these issues.

Public opinion polls taken earlier this year reflect some of this. Gallup found that six in 10 Americans consider environmental protection more important than traditional energy production; more than seven in 10 support alternative energy over oil, gas and coal; and most Americans want higher emissions standards. While Trump is opening more federal lands to oil exploration, public support for that policy has dropped from 65% three years ago to 46% today.

Some conservative organizations are working to make energy a prominent campaign issue for Republicans. One reports that voters are ready to swing to GOP candidates who support clean energy. Based on polling it commissioned in eight states, the conservative policy organization Clear Path Action says that “the best way to protect the Republican House and Senate” is to “go on offense with clean energy.”

Clear Path found that 25% of voters swung to Republican candidates after learning more about clean energy. Among voters who cast their ballots for Donald Trump last year, 77% said they support accelerating the role of clean energy in the economy. Nearly 90% of independent voters agreed.

Asked which national issues cause them to feel anxiety, nearly half of respondents put clean energy at the top of the list, above partisan politics, terrorism and illegal immigration.

The accuracy of the Clear Path poll is underscored by nearly identical results in research commissioned by the Clean Energy Network last December. It found that 75% of Trump voters support “taking action to accelerate the development and use of clean energy”. While 71% of Trump voters favored an “all of the above” energy strategy, they interpreted that to mean “lowering our heavy dependence on fossil fuels and allowing an increase in electricity generation from emerging technologies like renewable energy as well as more energy efficiency.”

Polling aside, there is a long list of compelling reasons for incumbents and challengers from both parties to “go on offense with clean energy” not only next year, but also in months just ahead as they debate tax reform, infrastructure and the federal budget. Consider the following facts assembled by a bipartisan group of thought leaders ranging from liberal to libertarian, convened by the Presidential Climate Action Project and two other organizations to discuss why clean energy should be a high priority for the nation during the Trump era:

A clean energy economy includes energy efficiency, renewables, natural gas, nuclear energy, energy storage, electric vehicles and biogas. Those technologies already employ 2.7 million Americans and generate revenues of $200 billion a year, almost as much as the consumer electronics industry. The American Wind Energy Association reports that the wind industry alone employs 102,500 Americans. Navigant Consulting expects wind-related jobs to grow to 248,000 over the next four years, producing $85 billion in economic activity.

Rural America played an important role in last fall’s election. Today, renewable energy technologies are proving to be important to rural economies. In many cases, the growth in renewable energy income and jobs is critical to communities’ survival. For example, the overwhelming majority of wind farms in the U.S. operates in rural areas. They pay $222 million annually to farm families and rural landowners. More than $100 million of these drought-proof dollars go to counties with below-average incomes. By 2030, rural landowners can expect to receive $900 million yearly from land leases for wind turbines. In addition, there are now 4 million jobs in rural biofuels and bio-based products, providing nearly $370 billion to the economy.

As of last year, 86% of America’s wind farms were located in Republican congressional districts. As a result, most of the $128 billion that wind power generated in the economy over a decade has occurred in “red” districts.

A growing number of right-of-center constituents and organizations such as the Conservative Energy Network and Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions are moving into the clean energy space.

Because sunlight and wind are free, solar and wind power are exempt from the price volatility of fossil fuels. The financial consulting firm Deloitte says that the volatility of oil and gas prices in the U.S. was a significant factor in causing the Great Recession. The International Energy Agency predicts that more intense oil price volatility will continue in years to come.

As far back as 2014, new solar and wind power installations became competitive with coal- and gas-fired power. Today, unsubsidized solar and wind power typically are cheaper than electricity from fossil-fueled power plants. In many cases, they are much cheaper.

A growing number of America’s largest corporations know that renewable energy gives them a competitive advantage. Nearly half of Fortune 500 companies and 63% of Fortune 100 companies have established clean energy and/or greenhouse gas emissions targets. Dozens have pledged to obtain 100% of their electricity from renewables in the years ahead. The Climate Group reports that companies making the most ambitious commitment to renewable energy have seen a 27% return on investment.

The U.S. International Trade Administration (ITA) says renewable energy has become an economic driver around the world, including the United States. It calls the renewable energy industry “one of the most vibrant, fast-changing and transformative sectors of the global economy.”

The U.S. Department of Energy warns that our electric grid “faces imminent danger” from cyber-attack. At a time when the United States’ power supply is increasingly vulnerable to hacking, cyber-attacks and large-scale outages due to extreme weather, distributed energy systems that operate without the grid are able to increase the nation’s energy security and prevent isolated grid outages from affecting entire regions. These systems range from rooftop solar installations to renewable energy distributed with community-scale electric grids.

Energy efficiency is Job No. 1 in the transition to clean energy. The Alliance to Save Energy says that doubling the nation’s energy productivity by 2030 would save the average household $1,000 annually on its energy bills while creating more than 1 million jobs and reducing carbon emissions by a third.

The idea that we must choose between carbon-free fuels and economic growth is a fallacy. At least 30 states and 35 countries including the United States have grown their economies without growing their greenhouse gas emissions.

The bottom line here is that America’s transition to clean energy offers a big bipartisan opportunity for this year’s congressional incumbents and next year’s candidates. Voters have a multitude of reasons to make sure of it.


*Contributor, Presidential Climate Action Project