The renewable energy sector has upped its support for Republicans in congressional races this election cycle, as the industry continues to expand nationally and become increasingly mainstream.
According to a Reuters analysis of campaign finance data, political action committees representing solar and wind companies have donated nearly $400,000 to candidates and PACs in the 2018 election cycle, with $247,000 going to Republicans, $139,300 to Democrats, and $7,500 to independents.
The 2016 presidential election marked the first time the clean energy industry gave more to the GOP than to Democrats, with slightly more than half of the $695,470 in political contributions from major wind and solar PACs given to Republicans.
Reuters called the spending "an unprecedented tilt to the right for an industry long associated with the environmental left." In 2014, for instance, 70 percent of the contributions from seven major wind and solar PACs went to Democrats.
Renewables have historically received strong support from Democrats in the form of tax incentives, research grants and clean air regulations. These policies have been critical in helping the nascent renewables industry grow.
Given the low-carbon profile of solar and wind, it's no surprise these resources found backing from left-leaning politicians with close ties to environmentalists. But as these industries have matured, they've also gained traction in right-leaning circles. At the same time, polling shows alternative energy is broadly favored by Americans when compared to traditional resources.
A recent report by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) found that Republican-represented districts currently host 85 percent of total installed wind capacity, while 15 percent of the U.S. wind fleet is represented by Democrats, given where wind resources are strongest. According to AWEA, there's strong bipartisan support for wind power, "because all Americans benefit from economic opportunity, homegrown energy and clean air."
Solar is also seeing increased adoption in red states, in part because the industry has made an effort to communicate the jobs benefits of supporting this resource.
"As renewable energy capacity continues to grow and concentrate in Republican constituencies, more Republican lawmakers are championing those jobs and benefiting from the mega-popularity of clean energy leadership and messaging," said Alex Bozmoski, managing director at republicEn, a community of conservatives working to advance climate solutions. "It just makes sense for these industry groups to reflect their constituencies, and a supermajority of their capacity and jobs are in Republican states and districts."
Source: AWEA Annual Market Report 2017
Choosing not to engage Republicans on clean energy issues will only hinder the chances of enacting favorable renewable energy policies in the future, said Shane Skelton, consultant and former energy adviser to Paul Ryan. Skelton is also a co-host of GTM's new podcast, Political Climate.
The solar industry has "worked hard to educate Republicans. I've turned, so I know it's possible," he said, at a live recording of Political Climate this week at GTM's Solar Summit. "I was very, very pro fossil fuel, very anti everything else. I'm not anti fossil fuel now, but I'm pro everything else. I just want what works best, so I know it can be done."
Even in today's heightened political environment, "It's easier to achieve legislative change when both parties are on board," he said.
These efforts appear to be paying off. Several Republican lawmakers have stepped up to defend the clean energy industry in recent policy battles, including support for legislation that would undo Trump administration tariffs on solar products and preserving funding levels for clean energy programs in the federal budget.
"More and more solar projects are getting built in red districts, and solar is truly a bipartisan source of energy," said Abigail Ross Hopper, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). "Given the growing interest in solar in Republican strongholds and the fact that Republicans control the House, Senate and White House, we felt we struck the right balance with our limited PAC budget.”
According to Reuters, SEIA gave more than twice as much to Republicans as to Democrats this cycle, at $56,500 versus $26,700. AWEA's PAC has also shifted its spending habits. In 2014, the group gave Democrats twice as much money as Republicans. In the current cycle, it has given $87,500 to Republicans compared to $67,500 for Democrats.
While these numbers show a notable shift in campaign spending as the solar and wind industries continue to mature and grow, these contribution sums are far less than what the fossil fuel industry spends. They also follow conventional wisdom around supporting people who are in a position to advance policy objectives.
"The typical rule of thumb is that you give 60 percent of your contributions to the party in power and 40 percent to the minority," said Rhone Resch, former head of SEIA. "So it makes sense that we would give more money to Republicans this cycle since they control both the House and the Senate. When there are critical issues (like a trade case) where you are trying to get Congress to influence the White House (Democrats have zero access to the White House), you will definitely spend more to support Republicans."
"The only caution is that the pendulum swings in both directions," he said. "Going into the 2018 election, where the House is expected to flip, we should make certain we are using our PAC dollars strategically."