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Part 2: Political Reality and the Way Forward for Renewable Energy

Political heavyweights know this about their rough-and-tumble game – you project victory long before the results are in. And when you think you've won, you never give your opponent an opening.

In Washington, it’s hard enough to craft legislation even in relatively amicable times. In the tense atmosphere on the Hill today, meaningful legislation takes a ringside seat, and the game becomes theater.

That’s where we are now. In one corner is the House budget, essentially the Republican Party’s line in the sand that’s been drawn over the size of the federal government. A key component of this is the federal government’s more limited role in supporting a clean energy future. In the other corner is the White House and the Democrat-controlled Senate, which has vowed to stonewall any legislation that it says caters to the super-wealthy and the entrenched fossil fuels industry.

Like two tired boxers in the ring, they’re content to leave it in the hands of the judges — in this case the voters, who will in many ways determine the force with which our federal government pursues a national policy built on clean energy. But the real prospects for any meaningful legislation is likely to come after the election, when the rhetoric cools and when political capital comes due. Until then, most industry observers don’t expect much chance of any real federal renewable energy legislation passing through a divided Congress. That means no Clean Energy Standard, no revival of the 1603 Treasury grant program, no extension of the Production Tax Credit until the end of the year at the earliest.

There are just too few vehicles that can be used to pass any of the measures, and too little trust between key negotiators to find find common ground. One of the last best hopes — the transportation bill — included an amendment that addressed some of these concerns. Ultimately, the amendment went nowhere, and the renewable industry was left looking months down the road to when something could get resolved.

The question now is will it be too late. For 1603 to be brought back to life, it would require a major shift in thinking, especially in the House. The PTC has a better shot, but international players in the wind industry are already indicating that they’ll get out of the market if the credit tied to energy produced expires. Will they wait around until the end of the year to see if it can be revived? It’s increasingly looking like the answer may be no.

Some Rays of Hope

Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., is the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power. According to his legislative director, Tim Robinson, there is less acrimony surrounding energy policy inside the chamber than it appears in the daily news accounts.

Robinson says that renewable energy and how it fits into our national economy has support on both sides of the aisle. Even those who are the most strident about limited government don’t necessarily see more renewable energy and less federal support as mutually exclusive. That viewpoint hasn’t necessarily been evident in the high-stakes House hearings on the Solyndra bankruptcy and the Department of Energy loan program.

But, according to Robinson, “We’ve had other hearings where you do have expressions coming from the other side of the aisle that make it clear that they see renewable energy as part of the mix.”

Even the notion of subsidies, he says, has the potential to draw the two parties closer together. Robinson was pointing to the recent push to get all subsidies out of all energy as they type of legislation that is attractive to some at the surface but one that causes deeper problems once its impacts are scrutinized.

“Members [of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power] understand each sector has started out at a different place, that newer forms of energy started in the game later,” he said. “Members will be able to resist the allure [of extreme cuts] and do something more surgical and appropriate.”

Jeffrey Anthony, Director of Business Development with the American Wind Energy Association, also sees support from individuals in both parties for legislation that would help maintain growing manufacturing bases. That support, he says, is too often trumped by the party politics that dictate how the agenda is set. “It’s tied to the current political environment which is not conducive to moving legislation forward, even legislation that has broad support of both Democrats and Republicans.”

While it’s growing increasingly unlikely that anything can pass before the election, there is hope that legislators can achieve some of these goals in the short window between the end of the election and Inauguration Day. That could prove to be a period of political horse-trading in which a flurry of legislation pushes through amid a harried call for cuts.

According to Rhone Resch, President and CEO of the Solar Energy Association, all the political rhetoric about balancing the budget and reducing the deficit is laying the groundwork for fundamental tax reform.

“This sets up an extender bill in late November or early December,” said Resch about a bill that could lead to a more comprehensive package that would have serious implications for all renewables. “We’re very, very cognizant that in an election year, and afterwards, how we do fiscal reform in the country and the impact it will have for solar.”

Speaking Out Industries

That sets up the big question for those in all the renewable industries. What can be done between now and Election Day to ensure that voters have a clearer understanding of what benefits the industry brings to the table. Maybe it’s jobs. Maybe it’s the environment. Maybe it’s about American ingenuity and the need to stay ahead.

This much is clear, though. The industries need a cohesive message, and they need to find a better way to coordinate and get that message out to rank-and-file voters. That message, say industry and political experts, is what’s needed to push legislators to ensuring that clean energy finds itself with a prominent seat at the table once budget cuts come down.

#rewpage#

According to recent polls, the Solyndra controversy hasn’t resonated as loudly as most in the renewables community would guess. And the reason many voters have latched onto Solyndra as a rallying cry has more to do with the concept of “crony capitalism” within the Obama administration than as an indictment of the viability of clean energy.

To illustrate the point that most conservatives believe in the idea of clean energy, but that they have yet to rally around a clean energy message, Democratic political veteran Donnie Fowler of Dogpatch Strategies uses the popularity of NASCAR as a measuring stick.

The racing circuit is the second most popular sport in America — behind pro football — and it has a loyal and mostly conservative following. According to Fowler, if you put Former Vice President Al Gore in front of 10,000 NASCAR fans and let him talk about the pitfalls of global warming, he’d lose the audience at the starting line. But if NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the same speech — word for word — there’d be a legion of instant converts. The reality, says Fowler, is that the messenger is just as important as the message.

Recent Examples

Along those lines, there have been efforts made that could connect with voters across the political spectrum. Where that ideology and practicality often meet is on military bases and in programs focused on veterans.

Democratic pollster Dave Metz of FM3 recounts a public service announcement for the Solar by Soldiers program in Ohio. In the PSA, a 55-year-old Iraq War veteran talks about his time working for a solar company that has made it a mission to hire those who have served overseas.

“There was a roomful of hardened cynical conservative men who were nodding their heads,” said Metz about a focus group that viewed the spot. “It was very powerful.”

Lori Weigel, a Republican pollster for Public Opinion Strategies, echoes the story the industry has to tell through its strengthening relationship with the military. Most, though, aren’t aware that this partnership is even forming. To get there, she said people in the industry have to “connect the dots for voters.”

“Most [voters] are not aware of the investment the military is making in this arena,” she said. If oil goes up $10 a barrel, that’s millions spent on gasoline instead of troops, and that is a message that really resonates with conservatives. Plus, she said, “military people have serious gravitas that others don’t and they have no financial stake in this.”

So, how can the renewable energy industry relay its message to voters in an effective way? Should each of the renewables industries define themselves as a brand, a la “Got Milk?”, and take their case to the airwaves? Or should all the industries unite under a shared understanding that the clean energy movement faces severe political obstacles, and that speaking in one voice could allow it to better reach voters.

Fowler says it’s time for businesses to start speaking out, because the vested interests are certainly not going to slow down between now and November. “Telling the message should be a fundamental part of the marketing budget,” he said.

From Weigel’s perspective, reaching voters is important. But giving them a clear understanding of the implications involved with abandoning clean energy momentum may be what drives them to action.

“When we talk to voters across the spectrum — conservative, Tea Party — when we say wind and solar, they say the future. In some ways it’s such a clear connection that this is the future,” she said. “How this gets done? Honestly, they don’t really care. They want someone else to figure it out. They just want it to happen.”

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