One of the environmental movement’s biggest accomplishments over the past decade has been convincing states to adopt so-called renewable portfolio standards (RPS). RPS require a state’s energy supply to diversify, gradually shifting away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources like geothermal, wind and solar.
At least 30 states now have these measures which set deadlines to ensure that a certain amount – sometimes as much as 40 percent – of energy consumed in the state comes from renewable sources. As climate change, air pollution and the broad-based political attacks on renewable sources of energy grow worse by the day, these RPS are more crucial than ever.
But they’re in jeopardy.
State legislatures have introduced a handful of bills over the past year seeking to repeal state RPS altogether or to expand the definition of renewable energy in ways that will weaken their climate change benefits. In the past several months, two major conservative groups – the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform – said they plan a full-scale legislative push to remove the mandates.
True to form, the Wall Street Journal editorial page picked up the mantle and began arguing for states to reverse their RPS (prompting an angry response from the Governor of Iowa, defending his state’s use of wind power).
Much of this occurs against the backdrop of the Solyndra effect. Republicans have made shrewd political use of the scandal that ravaged Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer to which the Obama administration provided millions in loan guarantees shortly before the company went bankrupt. (It’s worth bearing in mind that the natural gas industry received more than twice the amount in federal subsidies that solar did in 2010, according to the EIA – and there’s a major ongoing financial scandal unfolding in the natural gas industry right now.)
But, after the Solyndra story broke, dirty energy proponents ramped up an effort to undermine federal and state funding for all renewable energy. Their top prize is to take out RPS. If they succeed, it would undercut a major and growing competitor of the fossil fuel industry.
But as The New York Times editorial page pointed out recently:
The federal government has given generously to the clean energy industry over the last few years, funneling billions of dollars in grants, loans and tax breaks to renewable power sources like wind and solar, biofuels and electric vehicles. “Clean tech” has been good in return.
The Times went on to explain:
During the recession, it was one of the few sectors to add jobs. Costs of wind turbines and solar cells have fallen over the last five years, electricity from renewables has more than doubled, construction is under way on the country’s first new nuclear power plant in decades. And the United States remains an important player in the global clean energy market.
The Times concludes:
This is clearly the wrong time to step away from subsidies….The idea is not to prop up clean tech industries forever. It is to get them to a point where they can stand on their own — an old-fashioned notion that, one would hope, might appeal even to House Republicans.
But the tight financial climate is making it easier for the fossil fuel lobby to argue that money is too tight for the nation to try to transition to clean energy.
The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York, has been happy to help in this effort.
Earlier this year, they released a report that said seven coal-dependent states with clean-energy mandates or other types of RPS had rate increases of more than 54 percent from 2001 to 2010.
The Institute said that this was twice the average increase in seven other coal-dependent states without mandates.
The problem with the Manhattan Institute report is that it’s dead wrong, as the Center for American Progress quickly pointed out.
In fact, the rate of electricity price increases in 12 states slowed after a renewable standard was adopted, in some cases dropping below the national average, CAP found.
But facts be damned. The drive to uproot RPS is well underway and none other than the Heartland Institute, one of the most notorious climate change denial outfits, has also swung into action.
Heartland has gone after Renewable Portfolio Standards in Montana, Ohio, and Kansas, arguing that they are costly (while ignoring the economic benefits of renewables) and claiming that the greenhouse gas benefits of using wind and solar energy are “unclear.” (Sort of like how tobacco's health effects are “unclear” in Heartland's rose-colored goggles.)
It’s a classic public relations move to cast a vague cloud of doubt over what should be patently obvious. Countless studies have found that using wind or solar power will reduce emissions of greenhouse gases when they replace fossil fuel powered plants – a truism that’s even recognized by BP, the company behind the Gulf oil disaster.
Still, the efforts to turn back the clock are increasing.
Last year bills were introduced in Montana, Colorado, and Washington state to overturn RPS or reduce their impact. None of those bills passed but now lawmakers in Michigan and Ohio are also pushing repeal bills. A bill in West Virginia would also repeal the state’s goal of a 25 percent mandate by 2025.
ALEC – which counts among its corporate sponsors Peabody Coal, ExxonMobil and Koch Industries – seems to also have RPS in its crosshairs, and may draft model rules that would repeal RPS in many states, Bloomberg reports.
ALEC has already written a model resolution for state legislatures to adopt that would condemn any efforts to create a federal RPS. And earlier this year, ALEC organized a conference in Charlotte, NC coalescing lawmakers from 15 states to talk about undermining or repealing RPS and pollution controls.
The fossil fuel industry and its front groups are gearing up their efforts, mostly behind the scenes, to undermine RPS.
We should all be paying close attention, or we risk losing hard-won standards that not only have long-term economic benefits for consumers, but that also help states to gradually transition away from filthy fossil fuels.