clean energy politics

By Tripp Brockway

On November 5th, Virginians traveled to the polls to elect a new governor. The election was marked by ambivalence, as the candidates for Virginia’s highest office were exceptionally unpopular, even within their own parties. The Virginia gubernatorial race is an example of how occasionally in American politics, voters’ choices can be severely limited. On an average election night, each voter has two options, regardless of how complex their own preferences are: they can vote for the “Conservative Republican” or the “Liberal Democrat.” In our bifurcated political discourse and thinking, each party and its supporters always believe the same things about policy and governance, and, as the only available alternative, the other party must believe the opposite. Through this simplistic narrative, we create generalizations that fail to capture the nuance of an individual’s policy preferences. Further, by limiting our range of options with dogmatic boundaries, we hinder creative ways of building coalitions around specific societal problems that could lead to solutions acceptable to a majority of people, ideology aside. This phenomenon is particularly pertinent to clean energy politics.

According to a Gallup poll conducted earlier this year, a vast majority of Americans support greater emphasis on developing solar and wind energy, regardless of their political party. An outside observer would probably feel comfortable asserting that, in a democracy, any policy with such wide-ranging support would easily come to fruition. Yet Congress has done little to support clean energy investment and deployment, which is primarily the result of ideology and dogma interfering with pragmatic governance.

For clean energy politics, the devil is in the details. Liberals are apt to favor more government intervention to support their objectives, and clean energy is no exception. Policies like a carbon tax, renewable portfolio standards, and subsidies have long been in the liberal playbook as means to reduce carbon emissions and incentivize clean energy production. These policies, however, do not jive with a conservative worldview. Higher taxes, mandates, and government intervention in the marketplace are abhorrent to an average Conservative. Yet clean energy advocates seem intent on continuing to push for these policies. They either intend to bludgeon conservatives into submission, or they are holding out hope that alienating half the country and crossing their fingers for a Democratic takeover of Congress will give them their long sought after policies (which is possible, but unlikely). This strategy is largely the result of a lack of political imagination: because Liberals are “for” clean energy, conservatives must always be “against” it, right?

Wrong. In many ways, policies that enable clean energy deployment can make quite a bit of sense within a conservative worldview. Our current electricity system is a highly regulated industry in which government officials, heavily lobbied by big utilities, set prices in the marketplace. Consumers often have very little to no choice as to who supplies their electricity. Our system of electricity generation and distribution is centralized in such a way that makes the United States vulnerable to devastating terrorist attacks. These realities are as anathema to conservative ideology as the “big government” Democratic policies are. Conservatives believe in free market principles and competition, and distributed clean energy would create a freer electricity market and offer increased competition. Consumers would have a choice. The grid could be liberalized and decentralized. Individuals would be empowered to produce their own electricity and sell it in the marketplace. Our electricity system would be more resilient to attacks. With the proper framing, clean energy makes sense within conservative priorities.

Consider the alternative to business-as-usual clean energy advocacy. Instead of highlighting the country’s ideological fault-lines, bemoaning “conservatives’ do-nothing attitude” toward climate change and clean energy, and continuing on a path that is not likely to generate much in the way of results, advocates could find common ground suitable to all. This summer’s tea party movement in Georgia that united environmentalists and conservatives in support of clean energy deployment represents such an alternative at the state level. The Georgia Tea Party demonstrated that clean energy is not inherently contrary to conservative beliefs, creating a glimmer of hope for a new clean energy politics.

Georgia’s bipartisan movement in support of clean energy shows that, regardless of political persuasion, policies enabling clean energy deployment make sense. Some such policies may be more palatable than others to a majority of Americans, and advocates should be willing to find middle ground that will enable the rapid and continual deployment of clean energy. There are several policy options that are already in place or are available now that could inspire bipartisan support if given adequate focus and resources. Federally supported research and development into cutting edge clean energy and smart grid technologies can enable tremendous follow-on private sector investment and economic growth. Dynamic pricing, whereby the price of electricity responds to supply and demand in real time, would incentivize efficiency and additional investments to the system. The deployment of advanced metering policies and technologies can empower individual consumer-producers to participate in a 21st century electricity marketplace, buying electricity when they need it and selling their excess to the open marketplace of the smart-grid. Let’s imbue the clean energy movement with political imagination, circumvent our limiting political dogma and boundaries, and forge new alliances around policies that can build a safer, cleaner, and more prosperous energy system in the United States.