Renewables Diverge from Environmentalism

The long, often-veiled process for the contentious comprehensive energy bill is speeding towards an end. Having passed in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this week, the bill is now in debate in the Senate and scheduled for a cloture vote this Friday. Should 60 Senators vote in favor of cloture, which effectively ends debate on the legislation, the bill will move toward a Senate vote that stands to be a close one.

Washington D.C. – November 21, 2003 [SolarAccess.com] Despite the many criticisms from policy analysts and nearly every environmental group in the U.S., the energy bill has managed to gain the support of most the renewable energy industry associations. While the more consumer-oriented American Solar Energy Society (ASES) broke free from the bill support pack on Wednesday, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA)and the National Hydropower Association (NHA) sent a letter to U.S. Senators urging their support for the bill. The organizations said the energy bill, “…contains several important provisions vital to the future of our industries. Its passage will help expand renewable energy production and spur job growth in the United States in the immediate future.” The strongest criticisms however came from environmental groups which pointed out the lop-sided subsidies and incentives given to the fossil fuel, gas, and nuclear industries. Many in the renewable energy arena have admitted as much. So why would the renewable energy industries, whose technologies are so much a part of environmentalists goals, decide to support a bill so criticized by their counterparts? This simple answer is effective legislation and different goals, says industry consultant, and long-time Washington Insider of the Stella Group, Scott Sklar. “The political savvy of the House and Senate Republicans is to make sure that almost every industry gets something they really wanted,” said Sklar who was Political Director for two years of The Solar Lobby, founded by the big nine environmental groups. He then jointly ran both the solar and biomass trade associations in Washington D.C. for 15 years, all of this after a nine year stint as a US Senate Energy Aid. Sklar said that during this time he become keenly aware of the different goals between the renewable energy industry and environmental groups. “Clean energy groups want fast track incentives to grow their respective industries, and while Environmental groups want that, they do not want it at the expense of promoting coal and nuclear industries and waiving pollution rules,” said Sklar who shares environmentalists’ views that the bill lavishes subsidies on the fossil fuel industry and maintains their unfair advantage over renewables. “One could argue that even by giving US$1.8 billion worth of incentives to the clean energy industries, by giving $18 billion to the conventional industries, are you really providing an even playing field for the newer industries and technologies to ever compete?” But he too was torn on the legislation. “It is not an easy answer,” said Sklar. “I do not support the bill as a matter of good government policy. With that said, if the Bill is going to pass (and it looks that way), then get the best provisions possible for the clean energy side.” While the bill may not have any paradigm-shifting legislation such as a national Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), it still does have numerous benefits for the renewable energy industry. These include a 15 percent federal credit on solar installations, a federal government renewable energy purchase program starting at 3 percent of electricity and scaling up to 7.5 percent by 2011, a multi-year extension of the Production Tax Credit that has been so critical to the wind industry and stand to expire at the end of this year. This credit has also been extended to solar, geothermal and some biomass generation. In a move that has garnered significant support from Midwestern states, the also bill effectively doubles domestic production of ethanol. Despite the many benefits for the renewable energy industries he represents, Ken Bossong, the coordinator of the Sustainable Energy Coalition, isn’t sold on the bill. “In my personal view, the bill should be killed,” Bossong said. “The modest pro-renewables and pro-efficiency provisions are greatly outweighed by its negative provisions — both excessive subsidies for nuclear and fossil fuels as well as damaging environmental provisions.” That same dilemma permeated the ranks of his clean energy coalition which contain every organization and association named in this article. “There is not an internally consistent position within the Sustainable Energy Coalition (SEC) other than an acknowledgement that the bill is a missed opportunity because it fails to address energy imports (e.g., no auto fuel efficiency standards), climate change, or electrical grid reliability. Bossong said that because of these differences in views between the coalition’s environmental and renewable energy/energy efficiency members, the SEC has not taken a public position for or against the bill. Joel Stronberg, a Washington D.C. representative of ASES believes that support for the bill is a “big mistake” and does not support the various endorsements and congratulations it has so far received. “The split between enviromentalists and the renewable energy/energy efficiency communities is real and will undoubtedly have repercussions in the future,” Stronberg said. These repercussions could manifest themselves in letters of support for renewable energy appropriations and coalitions like the SEC that tie so many interests together, Stronberg said. “The renewable energy crumbs don’t outweigh the hideousness of the bill from an environmental perspective,” Stronberg said. “The energy bill could be one of the worst environmental bills in the last 30 or more years.” While it may be the worst, Ken Bossong of the SEC has a feeling about the bill. “I predict the bill will pass,” said Bossong. “Although I’d love to be proven wrong.”

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