Last month, I wrote a piece lamenting the lack of big ideas from conservatives about clean energy and climate change. By assuming that the only answers to reducing carbon emissions and supporting clean technologies are liberal ones, Republicans have fallen into a confining intellectual trap that is forcing them to ignore the issues altogether.
Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, put it well in his own essay on the issue: "The big mistake of the right has been to leave unchallenged the assumption that leftist tools are the only ones available to manage the transition to clean energy, instead of coming up with good conservative solutions."
When I wrote that piece, I had a Republican like Jim Rubens in mind as the antidote to that kind of myopic thinking.
Rubens is a candidate for U.S. Senate running against Scott Brown in the upcoming New Hampshire primary. His website features detailed plans on how to replace Obamacare (yes, an actual plan -- not another hollow screed), how to maintain gun-owner rights and how to create a more localized education system.
However, his biggest standout issues might be on energy and climate -- a place where fellow conservatives have remained mum or openly hostile.
"Jim Rubens agrees with the majority of New Hampshire residents who, by [a margin of] 54 [percent] to 36 percent, believe that global warming is happening and is caused mainly by human activity versus natural phenomena," reads his website.
Even more remarkable is Rubens' assertion that the credibility of the Republican Party rests on recognizing the overwhelming science: "These voters use belief in global warming as a proxy for candidate credibility on other issues. Without winning elections, we cannot advance the conservative agenda."
This kind of statement is more than just unusual -- it's one of a kind.
Kate Sheppard and Sam Stein of the Huffington Post recently compared Rubens' position to the stances of 107 other Republicans running for Senate and found that he was the only one willing to mention the issue on his website.
Rubens' opponent, front-runner Scott Brown, said that he believes humans play some role in climate change. But he has done a very delicate dance around the issue while campaigning, and does not mention it on his site. In fact, Brown's website featured no detailed policy plans at all on the issues, including energy, until a few days ago.
Only after I tweeted about the lack of detail did his campaign post a PDF of Brown's energy plan, which does indeed lay out federal tax support for renewable energy and fuel efficiency.
What makes a candidate like Rubens buck the trend within the Republican Party and openly discuss an issue deemed politically toxic by the establishment?
For him, it goes back to credibility. Denying the science means denying an opportunity for conservatives to influence policy. (For example, because of GOP foot-dragging on pricing carbon in Congress, the EPA is doing exactly what Republicans hate most: regulating emissions in a top-down fashion.)
"It's obviously very difficult, as a Republican, to acknowledge the science and propose something that will deal with the problem," said Rubens. "If candidates are forbidden from proposing bold solutions, we're going to be confined to stuff that's already been discussed and has failed to achieve political traction."
I chatted with Rubens about his long-time support for clean energy and why many in the Republican Party are afraid of talking about climate change. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Greentech Media: What got you interested in clean energy in the first place?
Jim Rubens: I've started and run more than ten businesses, most of them here in New Hampshire, where I've lived for 40 years. I've also been an investor in startup companies for most of my life -- both public and private tech companies.
When I was a very young man, I took out two second mortgages to invest in a company called U.S. Windpower. I think I was one of the first twenty investors in this company. They were down in Burlington, Mass. and they were building a prototype of the first commercial-scale windmill.
It was very early and they were just finishing up on a prototype. It was a very small thing. I think it was a 50 kilowatts or something. That was state-of-the-art at the time. I took out these two second mortgages on my house. The company did wind up going public many years later at somewhere over north of a $1 billion valuation. So, I've been interested in clean energy for a long time as an investor.
I got elected to the New Hampshire State Senate in the 1990s. I worked primarily on education issues, and when I left the state Senate, I stayed involved in Republican Party politics. Went back into investing.
GTM: How would you define your position on how you approach clean energy. What role does government play or what role shouldn't it play?
JR: I think that the process of the government becoming involved with its stop-start programs such as grants, the investment tax credit and production tax credit has diverted investors' and entrepreneurs' energy away from products, services and price competition for clean energy products.
Because government programs are so political, they're constantly subject to the changes in electoral politics, the whims of committee leaders and the relative power of various lobbies that compete against the clean energy lobbies. It has been a distracting process and I think it's slowed the startup companies from getting to where they need to get to.
GTM: How do you reconcile your stance on policies like federal tax credits with your previous experience? A company like U.S. Windpower and some of the other earlier players succeeded because there was the investment tax credit and then later the production tax credit.
JR: Those policies may have been helpful in the past, but the problem with them, again, is that they were stop-start with incredible amounts of uncertainty. It's very difficult to do production and land planning with these stop-start policies. They're constantly subjected to the whims of politicians.
What I favor now, given the much greater maturity of the clean energy industry, is individuals -- individual entrepreneurs. Our U.S. capital market is going to amass billions of private dollars around leading-edge clean energy technologies.
What I'm proposing, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, is to remove all subsidies, all production and supply mandates for all forms of energy. Remove them all. Remove all these subsidies and allow our innovative entrepreneurs to work on doing nothing but producing energy that is cheaper than fossil fuel -- amassing billions of dollars under their own control.
It's very feasible now. We're seeing these remarkable and continuing cost declines in solar technology. Admittedly, as in the past, those have been jump-started by subsidies and grants and tax preferences in the federal tax code, in the United States and also around the world. But now these technologies are moving down the curve on their own in the private sector.
The quicker we get government out of the way and get entrepreneurs focused on producing products and services that are price-competitive and fulfill the varying needs of customers in the marketplace, I think the faster we're going to get to the end goal of abundant, cheap and clean energy resources around the world.
GTM: Do you think that renewables could compete today if we eliminated the subsidies for oil and gas and eliminated the production subsidies for renewable energy?
JR: Yes, absolutely. I'll just talk about here in New Hampshire. I have a friend who installs solar PV on houses. Naturally, the users want to access the modest state subsidies we have here, as well as federal subsidies. But they've told me that at this point, for new construction, these products are cost-competitive even in New Hampshire.
Wood pellets to heat houses and commercial buildings are thoroughly competitive here in New Hampshire without any subsidies. Geothermal, as a way of heating. You can take 54-degree granite here in New Hampshire, drill 6-inch-diameter holes, and you can heat and cool buildings with it. It's cost competitive now for new buildings here in New Hampshire. Wind is probably cost-competitive in Texas now. Examples abound.
These technologies have been jump-started over the decade, and they're now at the point where they're rolling down the hill. Declining costs. Increasing market acceptance. Robust installer base. Immense amounts of private capital to drive things forward on their own. And as soon as we get government out of the way and entrepreneurs focused on the market again, we're going to get to where we need to get to faster.
GTM: Let me ask you a question that has flummoxed so many Republicans. Do you think climate change is happening and is caused by humans?
JR: Yes. The science is overwhelming. I have challenged folks who differ with the science to provide a different explanatory theory as to why species are moving to higher altitudes and more northward. And why ice caps are melting, both in the North and South Poles. And why glaciers are melting. And why spring is creeping earlier and earlier in the year and fall is coming later in the year. And why there are increasing numbers of droughts and temperature increases. Why ocean acidity is going up. Why ocean levels are going up.
Show me another explanatory theory to explain these actual facts on the ground. I've never had anyone provide me another theory to explain that. I've got to accept the science that seems to explain it, which is largely the carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere.
GTM: That gets to the policy debate. A lot of people are fearful of talking about the science because they automatically assume it means more government.
JR: I think that's the problem with acceptance of the science. The science, in conservatives' minds, has always led to an assumption of a government takeover of the energy industry -- and arguably, according to some, it's going to depress the economy in the United States.
I'm the only Republican running for Senate who acknowledges human-caused climate change. It's obviously very difficult, as a Republican, to acknowledge the science and propose something that will deal with the problem.
We have many difficult issues facing the country. Our debt problem. Our economy problem. But if candidates are forbidden from proposing bold solutions [on climate], we're going to be confined to stuff that's already been discussed and has failed to achieve political traction. To move forward, you have got to put new ideas out on the table for debate.
GTM: On the federal level, clean energy has been pretty politicized. But when you really get down on the local level, attitudes are extremely favorable about clean energy. How do you see those differences?
JR: People love the idea of clean, domestic, home-grown energy produced here in New Hampshire. We can do that.
That's why I say if we look at energy technologies that are clean and cost-competitive right now in New Hampshire -- we're on the road. This is why I proposed removing all subsidies. All tax preferences. All production supply mandates. And I'm confident that that will accelerate market development of these products, which in increasing numbers will supplant fossil-based fuels -- surely because they are cost-competitive.