A New Norquist Pledge? On Clean Energy, Get Your Facts Straight

Author: Lewis Milford, Clean Energy Group 

blogphoto-Solar-Panels-In-The-ParkGrover Norquist has helped to paralyze the federal government on tax policy, and now he wants to bring gridlock to the many job-creating successes of state clean energy policy. His recent article in Politico calling for the end of state renewable energy requirements is a sad and uninformed mix of factual errors, pure ideology, and a tin ear for the politics of the issue.

The most egregious of Norquist’s many falsehoods about the complexities of state energy policy are noted here.

First, Norquist misleadingly implies that renewable portfolio standards (RPSs, i.e., requirements on utilities to include renewable energy in their electricity supply mix) are a stealth strategy imposed by liberal legislators who came into power in 2006 and 2008. In reality, more than two-thirds of state RPS laws were enacted before the 2006 election, through bipartisan efforts of both Republican and Democratic governors and state legislators. These state leaders sought to increase clean energy technologies, industries, and jobs in their states by setting goals for the amount of clean energy power that would be generated. Moreover, when citizens in Colorado and Missouri―one blue and one red state―were asked to vote for RPS laws by ballot, they overwhelmingly said yes. In total, 29 states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, have RPS policies in place; another eight states have renewable goals.

So the liberal conspiracy theory is just wrong; rather, this represents a strong, bipartisan effort.

Second, Norquist suggests that RPS laws represent the use of outdated command-and-control “mandates” as if they interfere with some imaginary free market in energy.  The truth is that most states in the US have regulated utility monopolies that build nuclear, coal, oil or renewable power plants. For decades, state regulators have mandated, through legal proceedings, the kind of power plants that get built – whether coal, nuclear, oil, gas or renewable. There is simply no free market in clean energy to speak of in the United States, although there should be. Today, almost all state energy decisions are the result of mandates of one kind or another.

Calling out renewable electricity standards as unfunded mandates might make for good theater in Washington. Saying it in the context of the state energy decision-making framework just shows a complete lack of understanding of how energy policy works in the United States.

Third, Norquist either does not understand or misinforms his readers by saying that renewable portfolio laws dramatically raise electricity rates. This is not a true picture of the actual results. The state of Minnesota recently required all its electric utilities to carefully study and report on the rate impacts of the state’s RPS. Eight of the fourteen utilities concluded that the RPS had had little or no impact on rates. All but one of the other six utilities indicated that the rate impacts were modest—well short of Norquist’s inflated numbers and in line with bringing on any other new investment. More strikingly, New York found that its RPS actually led to a reduction in retail electricity rates. Why? Because renewable energy projects that were built ended up suppressing electricity prices at times when electricity use is at its peak.  Finally, states with RPS laws have strong cost caps in place to ensure that ratepayers are protected if renewable energy procurement costs are unreasonable.

Blaming RPS standards rather than a range of other factors for electricity price increases just shows ignorance of a complicated issue.

Fourth, Norquist’s most exaggerated claims blame significant job losses on renewable energy development. Leaving aside the fact that those claims are based on his inflated numbers for electricity rate increases, he ignores the many jobs that are created when renewable energy facilities are constructed locally, and when businesses grow to manufacture the equipment for those facilities, as well as plan, install, and operate them. A recent study from the Brookings Institution showed that clean energy jobs are among the fastest growing sectors in this depressed economy in the last decade.

That is why many state Governors—both Republican and Democratic—continue to support and defend policies to promote and implement renewable energy. Companies around the country employ many tens of thousands of people in good-paying jobs because of state RPS laws, clean energy incentives, and economic development support. Getting rid of those laws and incentives will result in thousands of employees losing jobs. What’s more, many of these employees work for companies, such as electrical contractors and construction firms, hit hard by the housing recession, and now stand to benefit from investment in an emerging energy sector.

Once again, real facts matter in this debate. A new, comprehensive census of Massachusetts’ clean energy industry found that more than 64,000 people—1.5% of the total workforce—are now employed in clean energy jobs. The number of these workers grew by 6.7% between 2010 and 2011, compared to 1% for the rest of the state’s economy, and it is expected to grow another 15% in the coming year. These are good paying jobs in many sectors of the economy.  They have resulted because of the state’s strong clean energy laws and programs.

Unfortunately, facts seem of little interest to Norquist. In the end, he makes his intentions clear. He just wants to stir up new Republican governors to end renewable energy laws for political reasons.

However, the states are smarter and more sophisticated than Washington insiders like Norquist when it comes to understanding the value of clean energy. Governors are directly accountable to their constituents for job creation and energy security, and they see how clean energy can help.

Take the case of Ohio. New Republican Governor Kasich first said he would roll back the state’s renewable energy laws in his campaign. That was before many segments of the business community expressed their strong support for those laws. Today, Ohio is the number two state in the nation in wind component and solar panel manufacturing. Thousands of Ohio residents are employed in solar and wind industries, in large part due to the state’s renewable requirements. Governor John Kasich now appears to support the state’s renewable laws, although he says he might include other technologies in the law’s scope to bring even more jobs to the sector. “They’re trying to get me to say we don’t need renewables here. Of course, we need renewables,” Kasich said.

Governor Kasich is not alone. Texas passed one of the most aggressive RPS laws in the country under Governor George W. Bush, creating a robust wind industry, and the law is still going strong under Governor Rick Perry. This past July, Republican Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin signed a revised RPS law that adds new sources to the renewable mix. In Arizona, the state’s Supreme Court recently turned back legal challenges by a conservative think tank whose losing lawyer, Clint Bolick, oddly complained that the heavily Republican legislature “has been cowed by the solar industry into submission.” The law continues to be enforced by Republican Governor Jan Brewer.

In the end, Norquist is not only wrong on his facts, but late to the game. Many of these laws have been in place for a decade or more with job-creating results. These laws have become popular with new businesses and the public because they have worked.  Governors of both parties have listened to their in-state businesses and shown smart economic sense in the face of superficial repeal efforts.

Maybe before Norquist writes another article on states and clean energy, he should take this pledge: “When I write about clean energy, I promise to get my facts straight.”