A Community Divided

The 2003 federal energy bill is now history, although it is likely that the past will again become the present when Congress reconvenes late in January 2004. Senators Domenici and Frist – with the support of the President and leaders in the House – have vowed to bring the legislation back as early in the new term as possible. In the meantime, various factions with an interest in the legislation will analyze the last battle and prepare their strategies for the next.

RE Insider, January 20, 2003 – Under any interpretation the 2003 national energy bill would have benefited fossil and nuclear energy technologies significantly more than domestically clean energy alternatives like wind, solar, geothermal, and bio-mass/bio-fuels. Although there were important sustainable energy provisions in the proposed legislation, e.g., production tax credits and a renewable fuel standard, overall the bill reflected the fossil and nuclear priorities of both the Administration and the Congressional majority. The impact of the 2003 energy bill, however, should not be viewed simply in terms of lost subsidies for sustainable energy sources. It must also be considered in terms of its impact on the relationship between the organizations that have traditionally comprised the sustainable energy sector in the U. S. The sector is a coalition of interests that when totaled, add up to support for domestically available clean energy technologies AND opposition to fossil and nuclear energy sources. Prominent actors within the sector have traditionally included: environmental organizations, e.g., NRDC and USPIRG; energy efficiency groups, e.g., ACEEE, the Alliance to Save Energy; renewable energy researchers, e.g., ASES; renewable energy entrepreneurs/manufacturers, installers, trade organizations e.g., SEIA, AWEA, GEA; power producers, e.g., American Public Power Association, Electric Power Research Institute, SMUD; the buildings sector, e.g., American Institute of Architects, the National Association of Home Builders, the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council; state and local governments, e.g., ICLEI, NASEO, NCSL; local advocate organizations (with and without ties to national organizations), e.g., NESEA, NC Sustainable Energy Association, Smart Energy; and, NGOs that straddle issue areas, e.g., EESI and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The interests represented within the historic framework of the “sustainable energy sector” are both diverse and disparate in their objectives and size. As we are discovering, support for sustainable technologies and opposition to fossil and nuclear are not always consistent. In the past, the differences between the various sustainable energy organizations and interests have not stood in the way of cooperation. The sector has employed the military’s “don’t ask-don’t tell” policy Rather than addressing its differences, the sector has chosen to ignore them. In the heat of this year’s energy bill battle, fissures in the relationships between organizations in the sustainable energy sector once hidden, became obvious. Having been seen, they must now be addressed. Ignoring them will continue to divide and weaken the coalition of interests that populate the sector and the sector’s ability to be an effective advocate for its issues. Senator Domenici undoubtedly included sustainable energy measures in the omnibus legislation to improve the chances of the bill’s passage in the Senate. In the extreme, the 2003 energy bill gave all of the nation’s energy interests something for which to be grateful. This not so subtle strategy resulted in a powerful coalition of energy interests in support of the legislation. It required those who were to profit from the bill, however, to publicly endorse the legislation and to praise the efforts of Senator Domenici. What was good for the energy industry, however, was less good for the environment. Environmental advocates were understandably opposed to the legislation because of its lavish support of coal and nuclear energy sources. Many leading organizations believed the bill to be the most damaging piece of environmental legislation in thirty years, and worked hard to oppose its passage by the Senate and the efforts of Senator Domenici. For environmental organizations like UCS, NRDC and USPIRG, as well as for sustainable energy organizations like ASES, the larger legislative package was simply unacceptable. For trade groups like SEIA, AWEA, NHA and NGA the bill’s sustainable energy provisions were too important to lose. Tens of millions of dollars of investment in wind have been put on hold because the production tax credits have not been continued beyond the end of 2003. It’s not just money that is the issue here. Livelihood’s are at stake. One wind company, for example, reportedly has laid off 100 of its 160 workers – because the 2003 energy bill was not passed. The 2003 energy bill has not only highlighted the differences between sustainable energy organizations at the national level, but those between state/local and national organizations. Having spoken with advocates in a number of states, it was clear to me that they and their organizations leaned against the bill–because of what they saw as unacceptable environmental consequences. In some cases this meant placing themselves in opposition to their national organization’s position on the bill. The opposition of local sustainable energy organizations to the proposed legislation was shared by a large number of editorial writers across the country. Polls and surveys of voters similarly found that the majority of respondents were against the proposed bill and suspicious of the motives behind it. The easy answer for the sector’s unity is stand-alone legislation for sustainable energy technologies. Ethanol advocates have already called for stripping the renewable fuel standard from the 2004 legislation and making it into its own legislation. Other renewable energy groups are likely to do the same in the coming weeks. Although a perfectly logical suggestion, it is unlikely the Administration and Congressional leaders will consent to strip these provisions from the proposed 2004 energy bill. Their presence in the bill makes it harder for opponents of fossil and nuclear energy sources to vote against them, and permits the claim, however contrived, that the bill presents a balanced national energy strategy. The 2004 energy bill is most likely to be a close copy of the 2003 legislation. Changes that might be made will try to address the environmental concerns of particular regions, i.e., the Midwest and the North East, and to come to some agreement on the liability issue resulting from the use of MTBE. Whether the changes made will be enough to avoid another filibuster is anyone’s guess at this point. What is not a matter of conjecture, however, is the fact that the 2004 energy bill debate will once again place pressure on the component parts of the sustainable energy sector-pressure that could crack the traditional alliance of organizations comprising the sustainable energy sector. The 2003 energy bill was an instance when the price of winning was too high for some, while the cost of loosing was too great for others. Although all groups want the same end-a sustainable national energy policy-the means for moving closer to the objective is much in dispute. As 2004 is likely to repeat the politics of 2003, it is necessary for the sector to address internal conflicts. It is not enough for organizations within the sustainable sector to go back to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to problems, or to simply agree to disagree. The differences between sustainable energy sector organizations are real and in some cases serious. Some of the disagreements are inspired by policy objectives, while others are based upon the fact that the various efficiency and renewable energy technologies compete against each other in the marketplace. The zero sum nature of this year’s energy bill battle meant that there could be no “win-win” scenario. As a consequence, groups that have been allied in the past found themselves on different sides of the issue. The sustainable energy sector’s current national agenda in my judgment is too focused on securing federal funds and not enough on making the argument on behalf of sustainable energy technologies to voters and consumers. Insofar as members of Congress and the President of the United States represent the American people, educating voters will lead to increased federal investment. As it is now, the sector’s technologies approach Congress with hats in hand and are forced to take what’s given–under the terms that are dictated. Fixing the fractures will not be easy, but doing so offers the opportunity for the community to establish an updated policy agenda and to craft a more effective and sophisticated strategy for accomplishing common objectives. I believe that the elements of a new sector agenda and strategy should include: – Expanding the grassroots base of the sustainable energy sector through an integrated information and education network calling for a national transition to sustainability by 2030; – Appealing directly to voters/consumers through the internet; – Crafting an integrated blueprint for federal action, e.g., research and development, federal purchases of green electricity and decentralized systems, tax credits, etc. – Creating an integrated blueprint of needed state and local government actions, e.g., purchases of green electricity and decentralized systems, tax credits, building codes, etc; – Annually reporting on the progress being made towards achieving the blueprints’ goals; – Increasing communication and cooperative planning efforts between the large numbers of organizations and interests that comprise the sector, e.g., trade associations, professional societies, philanthropic institutions, environmental organizations, construction groups, state and local officials, power producers, etc. – Establishing an annual meeting of leading sustainable energy organizations in Washington, D.C. to discuss and develop an annual advocacy agendas that includes identifying in-kind or dollar contributions that will be made by the various organizations to assure it’s successful implementation, e.g., hosting/maintaining an advocacy website, planning/conducting advocacy training sessions at the regional, state and local levels, creating a sustainable energy report card for members of Congress and the Administration, assisting organizations to do the same at the state and local levels, etc. – Issuing an annual sustainability report card for members of Congress, assisting state and local organizations to do the same for elected leaders in their communities; and, – Building-out the organizational base of the sector by working with leading organizations of other sectors, e.g., health, labor, internet, financial, homeland security, et. al. A new community agenda should identify at a macro level what must be done to accomplish the transition to a sustainable energy economy, while permitting individual trade, environmental or other groups to pursue micro policies and programs, i.e., specific tax credits or federal research, on their own or in consort with others. The objective of the new agenda should be to create a larger pie, specifically, focusing on the establishment of a national Renewable Energy Standard, non-discriminatory interconnection standards, government purchase requirements, etc. Allowing the sector to devolve into its component parts will only slow the nation’s transition to sustainability. As a community of diverse interests, the sector is viewed as less extreme than the environmental community and less self-serving than oil companies. The sector looses its appeal to the middle as the coalition is fractured. Our strength is our diversity; to build our strength we must broaden and unify our appeal. Balkanization will make it easier for our enemies to pit one organization against the other, insuring no useful outcome. I urge organizational leaders within the sector to face the issues that divide us and to craft a new agenda that is more global in perspective. I also remind them of Pogo’s immortal phrase: “I have seen the enemy and he is us!” About the author… Joel B. Stronberg has been in private practice since 1978. Currently the Washington Representative for the American Solar Energy Society, he has also counseled many of the major renewable energy sector organizations on key policy initiatives throughout his career and served as a special counsel at the U. S. Department of Energy. Mr. Stronberg attended Northwestern University where he earned a graduate degrees in law and urban studies. He can be reached at Jstronberg@anent.com.
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