To understand the political trap the Republican Party is creating for itself around clean energy, consider recent comments on climate change from Congressman Michael Grimm (R-NY).
Grimm was a skeptic who came to understand the threat of climate change after Superstorm Sandy ravaged his home on Staten Island in 2012. In a recent episode of Showtime's new climate change series, Years of Living Dangerously, he sat down with former Republican South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis to discuss the threat.
Inglis lost his seat to a Tea Party challenger in 2010, due in large part to his support of a market-based solution to reduce climate pollution. Since that time, Inglis' mission has been to get Republicans talking about conservative solutions to the climate threat -- an endeavor that has met with little success.
"What do you think it is, that we Republicans have gotten into the spot where we distrust the scientists?" asked Inglis.
"It's not so much that it's distrusting the scientists," replied Grimm. "What Republicans are afraid of is that if we give more credence to climate change, that it's going to be the call -- the cry -- for more rules, more regulations."
In other words: the party is willing to ignore the science and avoid putting conservative ideas forward because liberals have historically dominated the policy discussion around climate change.
Grimm's admission was certainly not an unprecedented revelation. In a 2012 interview, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) -- arguably the most outspoken climate-change skeptic in Congress -- explained why he is so opposed to embracing the science on the issue. “I was actually on your side of this issue when I was chairing that committee and I first heard about this. I thought it must be true until I found out what it cost," he said.
Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, penned an essay recently that outlined this intellectual conflict on the right: "For too long, [conservatives have] allowed the left to claim ownership of the environment," wrote Liebreich. "The mistake of the right has been implicitly to accept that protecting our environment is in opposition to achieving a prosperous and free society."
Liebreich's essay was part of an excellent series outlining conservative philosophies on cleantech, climate change and environmental policy from the Conservative Environment Network.
So what does this have to do with the increasingly contentious politics of clean energy?
The same political forces that made climate untouchable for the Republican Party are working against the industry, attempting to turn renewables and efficiency into a "tool of the left" that should be fought by conservatives at all costs.
On the federal level, the Solyndra-fueled opposition to Obama's green energy stimulus has crested. But on the state level, a loosely coordinated attack has emerged in the last two years, led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity (AFP), Americans for Tax Reform and the Chamber of Commerce.
These groups are seeking to end state policies promoting renewables -- not to come up with new ones that are better aligned with the idea of limited government. There's a big difference.
The money would help explain that strategy. AFP is partly funded by the Koch Brothers, the billionaire oil and gas tycoons who have made their distaste for clean energy very clear. ALEC is a "stealth business lobbyist" that writes legislation benefiting its corporate members -- big utilities and fossil fuel companies included -- and helps them pitch that legislation at the state level.
These two organizations -- often with financial support from the Chamber of Commerce -- have pushed to kill or weaken renewable energy targets, net metering, carbon pricing policies and energy efficiency efforts that threaten their business. The campaign is a case of protectionism and intellectual dishonesty at its worst.
In Kansas, ALEC claimed that the state's renewable energy target (dominated by wind) had raised rates by 40 percent. The Corporation Commission reported that the actual impact of 10 percent wind generation in the state was .16 cents per kilowatt-hour -- less than 2 percent of utilities' revenue requirements and a fraction of the 9.2 cents per kilowatt-hour electricity price (PDF).
AFP has also exhibited a willingness to straight-up lie. A few years ago, when the group was working to pull the state of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, AFP ran ads claiming that the carbon trading scheme would drive rates up by 90 percent. The reality after years of implementation: separating the cost of RGGI on a utility bill "would be like factoring in the cost of mowing the lawn at the power plant or factoring in the property taxes," according to Seth Kaplan of the Conservation Law Foundation.
This is certainly not to say that conservatives are wrong for questioning the traditional methods of incentivizing clean energy. There are very real policy discussions that should be addressed at the state and federal levels. For example, with wind producers signing power purchase agreements for 2 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2013, is there really a reason to keep subsidizing wind through the production tax credit?
And when it comes tosolar"taxes" -- the fees proposed for net-metering customers -- there is an ongoing and much-needed debate over the financial impact of net metering on utilities and other customers. But rather than engage in a policy discussion in markets where the financial impact of solar on utilities is very real, ALEC has targeted states with virtually no solar market in order to protect its corporate members.
Liebreich, who is extremely bullish about the clean energy industry, expressed his disdain for renewable energy targets, feed-in tariffs and green banks -- the tools that have historically dominated clean energy policy. The problem, he said, is that few conservatives are stepping in with real alternatives.
"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 -- ones which have improved services, lower costs, competition, wealth creation, pricing in of externalities, personal responsibility and freedom at their heart," he wrote.
Solutions could include reverse auctions, which create a more competitive process for project developers. Another solution could be the use of social impact bonds, which set up a "pay-for-success" model when developing infrastructure that may reward companies for cleaning up the air, protecting water or reducing carbon emissions. Other bond instruments like property-assessed clean energy programs are also extremely promising, but have gotten little attention from conservatives.
"The problem for the political right is that [in] this epochal shift to clean energy [the right] has completely wrong-footed it," wrote Liebreich.
And so, corporate interest groups are attempting to hijack the process, protect their turf and cloak their opposition to clean energy with vague and often hypocritical declarations about a "free market."
But unlike climate change, which is an issue that it is easier to confuse people about, clean energy is far more real. So far, ALEC, AFP and others have failed in almost every attempt to roll back renewable energy policies or change net metering policies. That's because farmers, small business owners and others who have benefited from the surge in clean energy have been willing to stand up for the industry. And many Republican lawmakers who understand that value have also been resistant to rolling back policies.
For the first time in the history of the modern electricity system, consumers have real technology choice in the way they get electricity. Farmers are earning new revenue from wind farms; solar is becoming competitive in California without state incentives; solar combined with batteries will likely be cost-competitive for millions of customers around the country in the next decade; and new interconnection policies that put distributed generation on the same level as large power plants are turning homeowners and businesses into competitors in the energy market.
Putting the tools in place to help spur competition doesn't always have to mean "the cry for more rules, more regulations," as Congressman Grimm worried.
It's time to have an intellectually honest debate about clean energy policy. But if conservatives continue to allow ALEC, AFP and other like-minded groups hijack the process, that may be impossible.