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Nov 082010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Now that the political winds have shifted, the American Wind Energy Association has taken a new snapshot of the horizon.

What do they see? Bipartisan support.

Really. They say they do. Those words came up often at an AWEA web conference on Friday to discuss the future of wind under the new split Congress. It became such a mantra — you could almost hear the turbines at Texas’ Horse Hollow wind farm whirring out the words bi-paaar-ti-saaaan sup-poooorrrrt,  as AWEA CEO Denise Bode and others counted the ways they hope that “bipartisan support” will work to keep government wind supports alive in this witheringly tough economy.

Shifting winds in Washington.

Now before we dismiss this as naive thinking, we should remember that wind power actually does have serious bipartisan roots. Elected officials in 29 states have put targets for clean energy into place, pushing utilities to make room for wind- and solar-generated electricity that doesn’t pollute like the fossil fuels (mainly coal) they have relied upon. These initiatives, called Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS’s) were put into place mostly over the last decade and have been endorsed by legislators and governors of red and blue stripes.

Out on Main Street, wind has such solid public endorsement that it polls far better than any politician — 85 percent of people, according to the last Harris poll, say they want more American wind power. Mathematically that means wind must have advocates in both party camps.

So the folks at AWEA have reason to believe that bipartisan support is alive in America.

Unlike the rest of us, who certainly won’t get all that we want — peace, jobs, tax relief, affordable health care, a balanced budget and a solution to the Asian Carp problem –  just because we now have divided powers in the capital, wind is in a fairly strong position. It generates jobs, it reduces pollution, it is perfectly poised to charge electric cars during the night and brings lower electricity costs when the playing field with coal is equalized. It is part of the clean energy future America wants and needs.

The problem is that Washington has gotten increasingly worse at delivering what America wants and needs. This strange land of entrenched interests, complex motivations and unsatisfying  compromises too often best serves its deal makers and big campaign contributors. The winds here do not blow predictably, but through the looking glass of political rhetoric and expediency.

You can say “bipartisan support” as many times as you’d like, and still end up like a toddler stomping in frustration because there’s no adult within earshot.

Realistically, the wind energy industry could face a head wind as it tries to hold on to two key tax credits that have helped drive phenomenal growth in U.S. wind power over the last few years. One of those government incentives, which has helped lure investment in wind is the 1603 tax credit which expires at the end of 2010, unless AWEA can persuade Congress to extend it. AWEA also wants a national Renewable Electricity Standard, which would set targets for more clean energy use nationally, and send a clear message to investors worldwide that the U.S. is “open for business,” as Bode says (apparently having picked up Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign slogan).

Let us summarize the potential roadblocks:

  • The “no spend” trend. Republicans who now control the House have been famously reluctant to pass comprehensive energy legislation. They’ve signaled they would rather look at it in parts, or as President Obama has said, in “chunks.” But chunk-bills tend to have their cost more exposed, and many of the newbies in Congress have surfed in on a wave of promises for no new spending. It’s well past time to slow spending, but the question remains, which spending? Wind energy could get caught in the rotors blades of this movement, worthy or not.
  • A critical mass of global warming deniers has accumulated in Washington. An tally of incoming new GOP lawmakers by Think Progress reveals that about half of them deny that global warming exists or is a man-made threat that must be dealt with. These lawmakers don’t seem likely to put clean energy high on their list.  Bode disagrees. She she sees hope because many of the newcomers hail from state governments where wind RPSs were put into place. They understand the value of wind, and the need to diversity electricity sources, she says. Perhaps some will see wind’s value as a clean air tool, even if they don’t “believe” global warming exists.
  • John Boehner, the incoming Republican Speaker of the House. Boehner has already voted against AWEA’s pet initiative –  that national Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) — when it first came up in 2007.  Advocates for a RES, say it would solidify the U.S. as a clean energy nation, setting up wind, solar and geothermal as legitimate providers of electrical power in the U.S. by creating targets for clean energy use. One iteration that’s been discussed would be to have a RES that requires 20 percent renewable power by 2020. That would be in line with what many states, and many other developed nations, have already.  Boehner, though, argued against a RES in 2007, saying that a “one size fits all” measure wasn’t right for the U.S. because states have varying stakes in wind power. (Though the same could be said of all power sources. Oil, natural gas and coal are not found uniformly across states.)

Bode did her best on Friday to counter these obstacles with the arguments the industry will use on Capitol Hill. She talked about how wind is present in many states now, even those that don’t have the strongest natural wind resources, because of the many small manufacturing shops that have sprung up to service the industry. Wind manufacturing — the business of making turbine parts — was the fastest growing manufacturing sector last year, she said.

She emphasized the “shovel ready” aspect of wind farm construction and pointed out that wind construction and operation jobs are not exportable; developing wind provides the U.S. with a brand new manufacturing sector that’s likely to stay put, because the wind turbines it serves will be stationed here, and the equipment is heavy and best provided by local sources.

Wind energy also is moving offshore — off the U.S. shores that is, with the permitting going forward for the first project, Cape Wind, in Massachusetts, and several others on the East Coast in various stages of development. So wind will no longer be the province of the “wind belt” states in the U.S. mid-section, but also a force on both coasts. More states. More stakeholders.

Bode also noted that the price of wind energy is coming down, to below that of coal, if you factor in the cost of a new coal plant. Already, in many places, consumers don’t have to pay more for electricity generated by wind. She cited a DOE study that found clean energy was competitive with fossil fuels, and can even save consumers money (not to mention a few mountains in Appalachia). For more on that topic, you can read more at the AWEA blog “Myth busting fact: Wind costs are competitive“.

Finally, she put her own spin on the fact that the RES will probably be dealt with as its own bill in Congress, and not as part of a large comprehensive cap-and-trade laden energy bill. “Now that we’re being looked at separately, it’s very good news for us,” she said. “We have supporters in the House and the Senate.”

Here’s hoping the winds of change don’t blow those supporters away.

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