In Heartland: Renewables are a Winning Issue in Primaries

August 1, 2018


It’s always easy to activate people on the negative side of an issue.

Anyone who has ever served on a council or a board will tell you, People who are happy, or don’t care much about issues, don’t show up at public meetings. But fear and anger are good motivators for turnout.

Across the Heartland, anti-renewable energy activists, organized and funded by the fossil industry, have been pursuing a campaign deliberately aimed at intimidating local official, county and township boards, in areas where solar and particularly, wind energy projects are under consideration.

That tactic has had some success in a few areas, but a pushback is developing.

Energy News:

Despite anti-wind bluster from parts of the state, candidates who supported renewables came out on top in Republican primaries earlier this year.

One conservative blogger called Republican Bob Steinburg a “solar weenie” and labeled the wind farm in his northeastern North Carolina district as “Bob’s Windmills.”

As anti-wind activists, bloggers and politicians poured energy and money into defeating his bid for state senate, Steinburg declined advice from supporters to downplay his clean energy support. In the end, he won his May primary handily, with the widest margins in areas where the anti-wind contingent had stirred the most controversy.

“There were folks on the other side that were hoping that issue would be my Achilles heel. These are primary voters. These are the most conservative of the conservative,” said Steinburg, who is serving his third term in the North Carolina House. “But being for renewable energy — it did not hurt me at all.”

Observers say Steinburg’s victory in this red corner of the state is a sign of growing support for clean energy on among voters on the right, despite opposition from key party leaders and conservative groups.

“Republicans don’t need to run from the issue,” said Dee Stewart, one of the state’s top GOP consultants. “If anything, they should embrace their support for clean energy. That’s what the polling numbers say.”

Growing bipartisan agreement over clean energy is in some ways a return to form in North Carolina, which has historically passed major energy and environmental policy with painstaking consensus.

In the 1970’s, North Carolina adopted renewable energy tax credits and favorable standards for developers under the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act, the federal law that requires utilities to buy from small power producers. In 2007, the Democratic-controlled legislature adopted a 12.5 percent renewable energy mandate nearly unanimously.

The combination of those policies sparked a wave of large-scale solar farms, catapulting North Carolina to second in the country for solar power. Technological advances made wind energy economically viable on the eastern coastal plain, where the Southeast’s first and still only major wind farm began operating last year.

But even as renewable energy brought jobs and tax revenue to poor, rural counties, a conservative backlash was brewing.

The economy plunged into recession, giving new salience to warnings from the right that clean energy would spike electric rates. Then-President Barack Obama championed wind and solar and a cap on climate pollution, provoking fossil fuel interests who poured money into the cause of Tea Party activists.

“For conservatives, somewhere along the line, solar energy in particular equaled Obama,” said Molly Diggins, director of the North Carolina Sierra Club.“It was less about the substance than it was an organizing principle.”

In 2013, when the GOP took control of the legislature and the governorship, conservative groups sought to topple the state’s green energy mandate and failed only when key Republicans, including now-Speaker Tim Moore of Cleveland County, voted against repeal, citing jobs and economic investment in their districts.

While the mandate survived, the legislature’s record since then has been mixed. Lawmakers allowed tax credits to expire in 2015, but angered conservative groups with exceptions for some projects through 2016. Last year, the House adopted a sweeping measure to double solar capacity while relaxing PURPA requirements; the Senate wouldn’t agree to it without an 18-month ban on new wind farms. Some observers worry lawmakers will attempt to make the ban permanent before the year’s end.

‘A much different landscape politically’

Though it’s been uneven, clean energy advocates on the right celebrate the progress they’ve made since the GOP assumed power.

“Repealing the [clean energy mandate] doesn’t have any support to move in a 75-45 Republican state House,” said Mark Fleming, the head of the Raleigh-based Conservatives for Clean Energy. “That is awesome.”

Rep. John Szoka, a Republican from Fayetteville, estimates at least half of his caucus now supports clean energy, compared to only a handful in his first term in 2013.

“I think we’ve got a much different landscape politically on the right than we did four years ago,” Szoka said.

Evolving attitudes among those in power match what top Republican pollsters have found consistently over the course of four years of polling: even conservative voters support renewable energy and are willing to pay for it.

In this year’s Conservatives for Clean Energy survey, Republican voters said increasing competition in the energy marketplace and investing in clean energy should both be bigger priorities for lawmakers than supporting fossil fuels.

Asked how policy makers should solve the problem of toxic coal ash, a plurality of Republicans chose “investing state resources into solar, wind and other renewable energy sources” over the options of doing nothing and paying utilities to clean up the waste.

A majority of voters – including a plurality of ‘very conservative’ ones – said they would be less likely to vote for a politician who supported the temporary ban on new wind projects.

“No wonder Bob Steinburg won his primary, he blew the other guy out!” said pollster Stewart. “This is a winning issue.”

Across the political spectrum, candidates are scrambling to get in front of the renewable parade.

Globe Gazette, Mason City Iowa:

It was a pleasure to read the Friday, June 22 story summarizing Democrat gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell’s brief interview with the Globe Gazette and his stance on wind energy. Hubbell advocated creating new jobs in the renewable energy field, and cut to the chase by saying the jobs are good paying and we have the wind resources.

While attending Gov. Kim Reynolds’ stop in Mason City earlier this spring, I had asked her about her stance on renewable energy. The governor’s response was also very positive towards wind energy — good paying jobs that help keep our young people in the area, support our rural economies, and protect the environment.

In this seemingly hypersensitive political environment we are living in these days, it is good to know that there are still issues where political officeholders and candidates from different parties can agree.



27 Responses to “In Heartland: Renewables are a Winning Issue in Primaries”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    We have been in a long winding tunnel—-is it possible that there is some small bit of light showing at the end?

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    “The governor’s response was also very positive towards wind energy — good paying jobs that help keep our young people in the area, support our rural economies, and protect the environment.”

    Let’s keep it real here: The dropping cost and the introduction of corporate support for renewables matter much more to conservative politicians than any not-immediately-monetizable benefit.

  3. Sir Charles Says:

    Off topic. The NYT has started an extensive review.

    => Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change

    Editor’s Note:
    This narrative by Nathaniel Rich is a work of history, addressing the 10-year period from 1979 to 1989: the decisive decade when humankind first came to a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of climate change. Complementing the text is a series of aerial photographs and videos, all shot over the past year by George Steinmetz. With support from the Pulitzer Center, this two-part article is based on 18 months of reporting and well over a hundred interviews. It tracks the efforts of a small group of American scientists, activists and politicians to raise the alarm and stave off catastrophe. It will come as a revelation to many readers — an agonizing revelation — to understand how thoroughly they grasped the problem and how close they came to solving it.
    Jake Silverstein

  4. Andy Lee Robinson Says:

    What could be more conservative than clean personal energy independence?

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