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RPS Attacks Go Against the March of History

Last week in Phoenix, I watched the very conservative governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, deliver a brief keynote speech to open the second day of the CleanTech Future conference put on by CleanTech Connections and the Arizona Commerce Authority. Nineteen floors above the impressive solar PV arrays at Arizona State University's downtown campus across the street, Brewer extolled the virtues of solar and other clean energy as a business boon for her state.

“Let me tell you what clean tech is not about,” said Brewer, who’s probably best known for Arizona’s controversial immigration policies – and wagging her finger in President Obama’s face on an airport tarmac last year. “It’s not about hugging a tree, saving a whale, or joining a drum circle. It’s about innovation and advanced thinking.” She noted that she’s used solar in her home since the 1970s, and that Arizona installed more utility-scale solar capacity in the past year than any other state. “Despite some bumps in the road,” said Brewer, “the future for solar in Arizona is bright.”

Some of those bumps, like Suntech’s March closing of its PV panel factory in Goodyear, Arizona after its recent bankruptcy, are due to economic factors. But unfortunately, others are due to a concentrated effort by many in Brewer’s Republican party to attack the growth of clean energy in states across the country.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a non-profit advocacy group with strong ties to Koch Industries and other fossil-fuel interests, is attempting to roll back renewable portfolio standard (RPS) laws in nearly two dozen of the 29 states that have them. Last fall, it released a template bill called the “Electricity Freedom Act” for supportive legislators to push in their respective states. The key portion of this template reads as follows: “The State of {insert state} repeals the renewable energy mandate and as such, no electric distribution utilities and electric services companies will be forced to procure renewable energy resources as defined by the State of {insert state}’s renewable energy mandate." 

In addition to its stated libertarian, limited-government position, ALEC and its allies have claimed that RPS mandates substantially drive up a state’s electric rates. But a comprehensive study of RPS impacts presented in December by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that only one state, Arizona, saw rate increases of more than two percent — and even there it was less than four percent. 

But as we know all too well, facts don’t always win the day in politics, whether on Capitol Hill or the nation’s statehouses. The good news here is that ALEC’s efforts to cut back RPS mandates have yet to succeed anywhere. In at least two states, Kansas and Arizona, damaging bills have been either voted down or withdrawn. But in cases like these, can we really declare victory for clean energy when all we’ve done is successfully defend what we already have?

The answer, I believe, is yes. Because efforts like ALEC’s to roll back progress toward a clean-energy economy can actually backfire. They galvanize opposition, perhaps starting with environmental activists but bringing in unlikely allies like farmers, ranchers, and many types of business interests. And the forces in favor of renewable energy growth emerge stronger as a result.

I saw this firsthand in my home state of California in 2010, when out-of-state oil interests asked Californians to vote on a ballot measure, Proposition 23, that would have suspended (and in reality, likely killed off) the state’s landmark AB32 greenhouse gas reduction law. When I attended early strategy meetings for the No on 23 campaign, my initial thought was: what a waste of time and money, fighting just to keep what’s already in place.

But then I watched what the campaign did. It brought in big guns from the political center/right (former GOP Cabinet secretary George Shultz) and business (hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer). Although California’s clean-tech industry had shown solid legislative muscle in the past, perhaps most notably Environmental Entrepreneurs’ work to get AB32 passed in the first place, the No on 23 campaign galvanized the community as never before. It outraised the oil-funded Yes campaign by a wide margin, and on Election Day the measure was defeated in a landslide, 62 to 38 percent. In fact, No on 23 received more votes — nearly six million — than any other ballot measure or candidate across the nation.

Since then, Steyer has devoted most of the past 2½ years to influential advocacy for the economic, employment, environmental, and climate benefits of clean energy. Just yesterday, the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford (he’s the benefactor) named former New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a great clean-energy champion, to lead its initiative to strengthen RPS policies in the states. And AB32 implementation has moved onward, though not without hiccups, but California last year became the first state to put a price on carbon through the auction of carbon credits.

I’m cautiously optimistic that ALEC’s attacks on state RPS laws will similarly backfire. The march of history has always been toward newer, more innovative technologies (as coal and oil once were) — and poll after poll shows that the American people are on board. In a Gallup poll last month asking which energy sources the U.S. should focus most on developing, solar (cited by 76 percent of respondents) and wind (71 percent) topped the charts, followed by natural gas at 65 percent. Trailing far behind were oil (46 percent), nuclear (37 percent) and coal (33 percent).

“I know we have to expend resources just to defend the status quo,” says Rob Sargent, energy program director at Environment America, a federation of state environmental organizations on the front lines of defending RPS mandates. “But I think it strengthens the resolve. It forces the question: do we go forward toward more clean energy, or backwards away from it? And we’re starting to see that there are very few people that don’t like it except those with an immediate stake in selling more fossil fuels.”

We should never underestimate the forces against progress, and the current initiatives against RPS laws bear close scrutiny and strong action in states across the country. But I think clean energy will emerge stronger in the end. On this issue, history is on our side.

One quick personal postscript: 10 years and one day ago, I drove a brand-new 2003 Toyota Prius off the lot in Novato, California. One decade, a few dings, and about 83,000 miles later, it’s still going strong — sharing the roads with thousands of much newer Priuses, other hybrids, and more than a few Chevy Volts and Nissan LEAFs. That is just the kind of historical progress I’m talking about.

Lead image: Watch on notebook via Shutterstock

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