By: Clint Wilder
At Clean Edge, we have emphasized for years that the growth of clean energy and energy efficiency should not be a partisan issue. Benefits like highly skilled jobs, economic development, American innovation and entrepreneurship, global competitiveness, and clean air and water win support across the political spectrum in the United States, as do direct questions about whether the nation should expand its development of renewable power.
But political bipartisanship of any kind, which has taken a beating for the past two decades, is now in full retreat. In the less than three weeks since President Trump's inauguration, the administration's "alternative facts" and contentious, with-us-or-against-us attitude have exacerbated an already grievous partisan divide across the country. As Time magazine put it on its Person of the Year cover story in December: "Donald Trump, President of the Divided States of America”. (Trump said he thought the headline was “snarky”). In this current reality, what chance does clean energy have to avoid a knee-jerk Democratic, liberal, or "blue" label?
Fortunately, there are plenty of supporting facts – not alternative ones – that continue to show the growth, importance, and positive impact of clean energy in politically red regions and constituencies. Given the realities of U.S. politics in 2017, it's more critical than ever for clean-energy advocates to spotlight these factors.
Let's start with a very significant metric – the states that receive the highest percentage of their in-state electricity generation from clean sources. The top three leaders, and six of the top nine, are red states in the American heartland – Iowa (31.3% of generation from wind power in 2015), South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Idaho. Other than a small percentage of geothermal energy in Idaho, all of the clean electricity in these states is wind energy. In addition, Iowa captured top honors as the most attractive state in the U.S. for corporate procurement of renewable energy in the recent Corporate Clean Energy Procurement Index, written by Clean Edge on behalf of the Retail Industry Leaders Association and Information Technology Industry Council.
The nation’s leading overall producer of wind power (by far) is Texas, home of Secretary of Energy nominee Rick Perry; the very red Lone Star State also ranks #5 in the Corporate Clean Energy Procurement Index. And one of the fastest-growing markets for new wind farms is Nebraska, where community colleges are starting up training programs to meet the state’s growing demand for workers. Nationwide, more than 100,000 Americans work in wind power-related jobs, according to U.S. Department of Energy data released in January, and “wind turbine technician” is the fastest-growing job category in the U.S.
In terms of crossing the political divide, solar power is a different story, with only two states won by Trump – Arizona and North Carolina – among the top 10 states for percentage of in-state generation from utility-scale solar farms in 2015. Among homeowners who have installed rooftop solar systems, however, a report released last month revealed some notable political demographics. In leading solar states California and Hawaii, residential solar owners are as likely to be donors to Republican political campaigns as to Democratic ones.
Report author PowerScout, an Oakland, California-based provider of software and services to help homeowners go solar, used satellite images, address data for 1.5 million political party donors across the U.S., and an artificial intelligence-based recognition model. The company found solar installation rates in California among GOP donors (7.27%) to be nearly the same as those for Democratic contributors (7.43%). In Hawaii, solar rates among Republican donors are actually higher, 9.58% to 8.5%. Hawaii is arguably the national leader in showing how mainstream solar is becoming; more than 30% of the single-family homes on the island of Oahu have solar PV installed.
Job creation, cost savings, self-reliant power – what's the best way to highlight these bipartisan-supported advantages in the political discourse of 2017? Tip #1: don’t talk about climate change. In a recent New York Times story called “Talk About the Weather,” reporter Hiroko Tabuchi traveled to Glen Elder, Kansas (population 445) to interview local farmers about the significant impacts of climate change on their crop yields. Although the literal facts on the ground and in the air show a changing climate in north central Kansas, “climate change” is once again such a politically charged phrase that most of these conservative residents prefer to say the science is unsettled. (Al Gore and the United Nations don’t play well here.) But they still support and practice soil management techniques that sequester CO2, for example, because of the agricultural benefits.
Clean energy needs a similar approach. Forty miles to the east of Glen Elder in neighboring Cloud County, the turbines of EDP Renewables’ 200-megawatt Meridian Way Wind Farm have been cranking out clean electrons since 2008. It’s one of the dozens of facilities that made wind responsible for 23.9% of Kansas’s in-state electricity generation in 2015, third-highest percentage in the nation.
“From a political standpoint, you can build a constituency that benefits from this industry,” Clean Line Energy Partners director of development Mark Lawlor told the Times. “Just like grain, cattle, airplanes – wind is another valuable resource Kansas can export. Kansas has a lot of pragmatic folks here, and we recognize benefits.”
Shifting the emphasis of clean energy away from climate and environmental issues to reflect current political reality is not new. But just 12 short months ago, industry participants and advocates were riding an enthusiasm wave from the Paris climate accord of December 2015. From the Barack Obama-led U.S. to the oil-producing United Arab Emirates (where I attended the 2016 World Future Energy Summit last January), “climate action” was not a dirty word.
Unfortunately, from Brexit to Trump, the political times have changed. The tangible economic benefits of clean energy, however, have not. In our 2012 book Clean Tech Nation, Clean Edge managing director Ron Pernick and I published the following quote from renowned sustainability consultant L. Hunter Lovins from her book with Boyd Cohen, Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change:
“Believe in climate change. Or don’t. It doesn’t matter. But you’d better understand this: the best route to rebuilding our economy, our cities, and our job markets, as well as assuring national security, is doing precisely what you would do if you were scared to death about climate change.” Now, and for the next four years – in the red, blue, and purple regions of our divided nation – that message is more important than ever.
Clint Wilder is Clean Edge’s senior editor, a blogger about clean-tech issues for the Green section of The Huffington Post, and co-author of Clean Tech Nation and The Clean Tech Revolution (both with Ron Pernick). E-mail him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @Clint_Wilder.