Is the Sun the Only Thing Powerful Enough to Unite Democrats and Republicans?

Renewable energy has recently garnered unlikely support from bipartisan legislators.

solar energy renewable energy standards

Mike Jones stands next to solar panels on the roof of his home in Los Angeles, California, on March 18, 2011. The first month after the panels were installed Jones' electricity bill went down from $160 to $11. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

A climate blogger, RL is chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus.

A funny thing is happening on the way to conservative attacks on solar energy—some conservatives are championing renewable energy over fossil fuel interests. The reason is simple: It’s called employment.

Businesses are employing people and making money on a slow shift to renewable power. In the windy Great Plains states, farmers pocket wind turbine lease money. In sunny California, there are more solar installers than actors.

It turns out that renewable energy, as popular as mom’s apple pie with American consumers, is also good for American business. And now jobs-conscious legislators from both parties are listening.

Renewable energy standards, or RESs—sometimes called Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), just to add to the alphabet-soup mix—require electric utilities to buy a percentage of their power from renewable sources, such as solar, and wind by a certain date.

These standards range from modest (Indiana wants its power to be 10 percent renewable by 2025) to ambitious (California requires 33 perecent by 2020). An electric utility can meet an RES law any number of ways, which vary by state. Buying electricity from a wind farm in a remote location or from a homeowner’s solar rooftop are two common examples.

Alone, the RES laws won’t make a huge dent in the United States’ carbon pollution. But they’re creating critical mass. Businesses are employing people and making money on a slow shift to renewable power. In the windy Great Plains states, farmers pocket money from wind turbine leases. In sunny California, there are more solar installers than actors.

On the other hand, the fossil fuel industry sees even a small RES as a threat to its business model. So it has partnered with the American Legislative Exchange Council to draft model laws delaying or repealing 22 states’ RES laws.

After all, those laws are a government mandate that any freedom-loving state legislature would hate, right? But it hasn’t worked out that way.

In North Carolina last week, Republicans helped defeat a bill that would have phased out a state RES. In doing so, they protected a multitude of jobs—including 300 that involve constructing mounting systems for solar panels. (However, a companion bill in the Senate was hastily deemed to have enough support to pass out of committee this afternoon.)

The Kansas win was even more striking: Home state Koch Industries’ top lobbyist and anti-tax guru Grover Norquist both personally interceded for rolling back the RES, but they still couldn’t convince Republican legislators that wind business is somehow bad business.

Arizona’s politics trend conservative, but the desert state is a natural fit for solar power. A proposal to roll back the state RES failed in March as pro-business Republicans recognize the economic opportunities in renewables.

Within the last few days, Colorado’s state House and Senate have each passed bills (expected to be combined and signed by the Governor) doubling renewable power, from 10 percent to 20 percent, for the state’s rural co-ops. The change is expected to bring 10,000 jobs in renewable energy to the state.

Many battles will be fought in the months ahead, with attacks on RES laws most serious in Connecticut, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Vermont. But the theme beginning to emerge is one of pro-business, pro-jobs rhetoric persuading state legislators of both parties.

Carrie Cullen Hitt, senior vice president of state affairs at SEIA, tells TakePart: “Efforts to roll back state renewable energy laws are being met by bipartisan opposition in states like North Carolina for a very simple reason—solar energy is driving economic and job growth from coast to coast. More than 90 percent of Americans think the U.S. should be developing more solar energy because it’s clean, abundant and affordable.”

Hitt adds, “The solar industry has grown from 15,000 employees in 2005 to nearly 120,000 today, making it one of the fast-growing sectors of the U.S. economy. What’s more, these skilled workers are employed at more than 5,600 American companies—the majority of which are small businesses spread across all 50 states.”

Here, what’s good for American businesses is also good for America.

Would you consider working in alternative energy? Let us know in the Comments.


RL Miller is a climate blogger; on the executive board of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus; editor of twitter-based policy news feeds for House Progressive Caucus and others, @PCNEnvironment and @PCNNatRes; speaker at Netroots Nation; and, in spare time, a practitioner of law and keeper of chickens. TakePart.com

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