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Renewables on the Campaign Trail: Good Signs, but Not Much Energy

Clint Wilder's picture

Election Day 2004 will be a critical and historic day for the future of clean energy in the United States, and not just in the all-consuming presidential race. For the first time, voters in one state will have the chance to decide for themselves if a mandated renewable portfolio standard is a good idea. The state is Colorado, where a ballot initiative called Amendment 37 would require the state's seven largest utilities to generate 10% of retail electricity (up from 2% currently) from renewable sources by 2015. The measure specifies a phased-in timetable starting with 3% renewables in 2007, and also mandates that 4% of the state's energy mix in 2015 comes from solar photovoltaic generation. Colorado's top utilities vigorously oppose the measure and have raised $450,000 to fight it, according to state campaign finance records. From that, one might presume that Amendment 37 is doomed, or at least faces an uphill battle. Quite the contrary, according to a mid-September poll by the Rocky Mountain News and Channel 4 in Denver. An overwhelming 74% of voters surveyed said they approve of the initiative, with 19% disapproving and 7% saying they don't know. That 74% looks like one of those numbers that pollsters say they can't even get when asking if the sky is blue. One reason may be the initiative's provision that caps any resulting residential electric rate increase at 50 cents per month. If Colorado's Amendment 37 passes, especially if it does so by a wide margin in a 2000 "red state" with two Republican senators, it will be a huge positive message for the future of clean energy as an issue with bipartisan public and political support. Indeed, the measure's sponsor is a GOP legislator, Colorado House Speaker Lola Spradley, who has lined up plenty of Democratic support led by environmentalist Congressman Mark Udall. Another Republican, New York Governor George Pataki, recently received public service commission approval in his state for his proposed 25% RPS initiative by 2013, one of the most ambitious in the United States. And during the same week in September, Congress finally approved an extension (though unfortunately only through 2005) of the production tax credit for wind energy. Clean energy clearly has momentum - and oil at $50 a barrel should be yet another wake-up call. But has it become a campaign issue outside of Colorado? Not really. Since Sen. John Kerry's famous line at the Democratic convention that our energy policy should depend on American inventiveness and entrepreneurship and not on "the Saudi royal family," little about our energy future has entered the mainstream campaign dialogue. Clean energy would seem to present a ripe opportunity for the Kerry campaign. Since President Bush launched his much-touted $1.7 billion hydrogen R&D initiative in his 2003 State of the Union address, his administration has shown very little leadership on clean energy. The Bush campaign's energy platform is dominated by fossil-fuel and nuclear power initiatives such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, promoting more domestic natural gas exploration and LNG terminals, encouraging new oil refineries, and "ensuring a future for nuclear power as a viable and emissions-free energy source," according to the campaign's web site. Kerry and Bush agree on some energy policies, such as additional funding for clean-coal technology and an increase of ethanol and biodiesel use by 5 billion gallons by 2012. But Kerry is clearly much more committed to renewable energy, pledging to work for a national RPS of 20% by 2020. He's also outlined a $30 billion program of tax breaks, R&D initiatives and public-private partnerships to spur the clean-energy industry. This issue could be a big winner for Kerry and John Edwards, but so far they don't seem to be emphasizing it much on the campaign trail. I don't think the voters polled in Colorado are an anomaly. A majority of Americans want to see more development of clean energy. An active, aggressive stance from Kerry on the issue would help increase the chance of him being the man to lead that development for the next four years. Wilder is Clean Edge's contributing editor. E-mail him at wilder[at]cleanedge[dot]com.