As Red States See Clean Energy Boom, More Conservatives See Value in Transition

March 9, 2023

Had a conversation yesterday with a very successful Michigan farmer, on the other side of the state from where I filmed my recent videos, about solar energy.
What’s interesting about the tight rope that I’m walking here is that, while I am advocating for clean energy, it’s in areas that are about as conservative, red, Republican imaginable. This farmer was not unusual in that he was very clear he was not on the climate change train. “I’m not one of those who think the world is burning up”, he said, “back in the 70s it was cooling. It’s all a cycle.”

He went on to describe a detailed idea he had for grazing sheep alongside solar panels, and told me how he had explained to a number of skeptical friends, and legislators, how taking land out of production for 30 years with solar generation will result in vastly improved soils, at a time when soil depletion has become a critical issue in agriculture.
And I’m fine with it. Because I’m not working here to get everyone on the same side of the science, I’m working to get more clean energy on the ground. We are in the age of deploy, deploy, deploy, and not much else matters at the moment. A few more winters like this one and the conversation about climate change will continue to widen, but that’s not the critical thing.
My advice to those seeking to expand clean energy is be aware you have a lot of potential allies in rural, red areas, but you may have to check your priors, and your pronouns, at the door.
If you do that, you can have a lot of rich, productive conversations, and make a lot of new friends, as I have.

David Wallace Wells in the New York Times:

I don’t want to be naïve, or to echo the predictions of previous climate Pollyannas to say that Republican cooperation is right around the corner. At the highest level, it obviously isn’t, and the work of decarbonization remains overwhelmingly a Democratic effort. But the partisan landscape may be finally changing, indeed somewhat significantly.

Before the Biden presidency, the last time a Democratic president advanced a major chunk of the liberal legislative agenda with no Republican votes, you may remember, it was Obamacare, and Republicans spent the better part of a decade screaming about it. This time, the Senate squeaked the I.R.A. past the finish line barely three months before the midterms, and yet it was almost invisible on the campaign trail in the weeks that followed. The biggest piece of climate legislation in American history produced no discernible backlash, and there was practically no fear-mongering talk of a Green New Deal or climate socialism to come, no mention of the end of airline travel or burger bans, and not even any meaningful grandstanding about environmentalism run amok beyond some griping over gas prices. In the new Congress, some Republicans have been talking about targeting a few pieces of the I.R.A., and the House Energy and Commerce Committee has requested a kind of regular I.R.A. audit from the Department of Energy. But with Obamacare, remember, they voted to repeal it in full more than 50 times.

One big reason for that is the design of the bill itself, which was both smaller in size and more targeted in scope than many of the original Green New Deal proposals. In fact, it was designed in part to blunt backlash. That was done by making the bill almost all carrots and almost no sticks, by sticking to a “technology neutral” framework that frustrated climate hawks and pleased energy centrists like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and by whittling it down to a core set of tax incentives rather than dressing it up with objectionable giveaways.

But another even more obvious reason is money. The Inflation Reduction Act is a spigot of spending designed to produce a decarbonization boom — indeed, while it is often described as a $370 billion piece of legislation, that analysis seems likely to significantly underestimate the ultimate size of its tax incentives, which could stretch much closer to $1 trillion with rapid renewable development. A hugely disproportionate share of that money is going to places we think of as politically and culturally “red” but which, thanks to their abundance of land and wind and sun, we may want to start thinking of also as “green.”

How disproportionate? Between the signing of the I.R.A. and Jan. 31, announcements of the largest clean-energy investments have been in Georgia and Idaho, followed by Tennessee, then Michigan, then South Carolina and Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, Kansas, Nevada and Arizona. Between now and 2027, Texas is expected to add almost twice as much solar capacity as California. In expected development, Ohio, Nevada, Indiana and Florida rank third, fourth, fifth and sixth.

All told, according to an analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Inflation Reduction Act could deliver, on average, nearly twice as much subsidy per capita to Republican states as Democratic ones. (This from a bill, remember, that got precisely zero Republican votes.) The three biggest per capita recipients would be Wyoming, North Dakota and Mr. Manchin’s West Virginia. Texas could receive $132 billion in subsidies, the most of any state. Florida could receive $62 billion. New York would get only $36 billion. “The I.R.A. has transformed the landscape in a staggering way,” Aaron Brickman of the Rocky Mountain Institute told The Guardian’s Oliver Milman, in a report from Georgia headlined “Republicans in the U.S. ‘battery belt’ embrace Biden’s climate spending.”

The story is bigger than the “battery belt.” “5 years ago the general mood in Houston toward decarbonization bordered on open hostility,” the Texas venture capitalist John Arnold recently tweeted. “Today, I’m more likely to overhear a conversation at the coffee shop about an energy transition deal than one in oil and gas.”

This is not just the doing of the I.R.A. To a degree hardly anyone but wonks really appreciates, green energy in the United States was a heavily red-state phenomenon before the legislation even hit Mr. Biden’s desk in August. Already, Texas produces more renewable energy than anywhere else in the country — in fact, almost twice as much as California, the second biggest producer. In third, fourth and fifth place are Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas. Judged by percentage of overall power use, the most prolific source of renewables is Iowa, followed by South Dakota. Then, after Vermont, come Kansas, Oklahoma, Maine and New Mexico.

When it comes to non-hydro renewable power, Texas is today producing more than the entire Midwest. It doubled its solar capacity from 2019 to 2020 and almost did so again from 2020 to 2021. You may think of Texas as hostile to green energy, given not just its oil industry but also its recent grid problems and widespread blackouts and the grandstanding of its fossil-friendly, climate-skeptic governor. But on the ground, the state is probably the biggest green-energy success story in the country.

Zoom in even closer than the state level and the partisan picture is even more striking: According to an analysis by American Clean Power, there has been a huge wave of major new utility-scale wind, solar and battery projects announced between the passage of the I.R.A. and the end of the year. Of those far enough along to have already have confirmed locations, more than 80 percent were in congressional districts held by Republicans. Eighty percent!

There is more to decarbonization than renewables, of course, and conservative cultural hostility may prove trickier to navigate when it comes to other priorities: grid improvements, E.V. charging stations, regulations on new construction and retrofitting homes, for instance; the gas industry lobbying against electrification; and more broadly the need to ultimately retire fossil fuel use rather than just supplement it with renewable power. But if six months ago liberals worried that federal progress would be stonewalled by activist Republican state treasurers and attorneys general, who scrambled to “blacklist” banks and investors pushing the green transition, there are already clear signs that effort has backfired in even the reddest of states. Just since the fall, such policies were beaten back by state legislatures in North Dakota, Indiana, Mississippi and Kentucky. In North Dakota, the vote was 90-3.

These stories are probably not disconnected: When the government is pouring money into your backyard, it’s hard to play the NIMBY for long. Which is why even if 90-3 votes aren’t coming to D.C. anytime soon, the disengagement of the Republican Party seems to me less like a result of grass roots pressure and inescapable culture-war conflict on decarbonization and more like a sign that federal elites are simply lagging behind their states. Perhaps their voters, too.


2 Responses to “As Red States See Clean Energy Boom, More Conservatives See Value in Transition”

  1. Great post! I once made a similar argument some years back to my more conservative co-workers. There’s a solid economic argument to be made in favor of clean energy and it’s good to see that set out here in such clear terms.

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Don’t underestimate their ability to undermine policy and legislation in favor of fossil fuel.

    The oil&gas old boys still have their claws in Texas state politicians.

    Even the old boys in West Virginia are fighting the siting of Form Energy’s “rust battery” plant because it’s an affront to coal culture or some such nonsense.

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