Industry groups sell profit-making, not planet-saving, at GOP convention

Source: Elana Schor, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 30, 2012

TAMPA, Fla. — The American Petroleum Institute is inescapable here, its name attached to briefings and concerts while its campaign logo adorns free sunglasses and sunscreen.

But clean energy is not invisible to Republicans during their quadrennial celebration.

Even as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney emphasizes the oil, gas and coal elements of what his party likes to call an “all of the above” strategy, businesses that traffic in renewables and efficiency are honing their energy pitch to conservatives. Their language tends to sidestep climate change and the environment while emphasizing profits and growth — talk tailor-made to persuade a potential Romney administration that fossil fuels are not the only game in town.

Advanced Energy Economy (AEE) CEO Graham Richard, a former Democratic mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., who introduced his 9-month-old group to the GOP at a convention welcoming party, outlined a vision that looks beyond the heat of the campaign to a possible reclamation of energy from the campaign culture wars that have made Solyndra and Keystone XL into political hot potatoes.

“Rather than being reflexive, we’re looking at a long-term, persistent, consistent voice that’s pragmatic” in discussing the benefits of cleaner fuel and power, Richard said in an interview.

Part of that pragmatism plays out in ways that might unsettle environmentalists who worked alongside AEE co-founder Tom Steyer to defeat a 2010 ballot initiative that would have undone California’s climate law. Richard talks about the economic upside of cheap natural gas and said his group has room to support “innovators selling services to mature industries” such as fossil fuels.

AEE doesn’t always “view policy as the solution,” said Tim Greeff, the group’s vice president of government affairs. “In some cases, policy is the problem.”

As an example, Greeff cited state-level rules that act as “actual financial disincentives” against utilities looking to embrace efficiency. It’s a far cry from the type of overregulation that Romney and his party lament while throwing red meat to their base. But Greeff’s call to “get government out of the way” amounts to an undeniably Republican-friendly case for clean energy.

Alliance to Save Energy (ASE) President Kateri Callahan, also in town to talk to Republicans, makes the same case. Her group tapped Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) to lead a commission it formed to craft a forward-looking post-election agenda highlighting “energy productivity” as a new frame for efficiency.

“If you turn people off with the words you choose, they don’t understand” ASE’s broader goal, Callahan said in an interview. “It’s not just saving energy because of the climate or even for security. It’s got to have that economic undertone.”

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), as it pushes to preserve — at least for the short term — a production tax credit that is vital to its industry members, never fails to note the level of GOP and red state support for a benefit that Romney’s campaign recently said he would allow to expire.

The wind group, like AEE and ASE, is staying on the sidelines of the presidential race, but its message is also designed to appeal to the Republicans who could take over the White House next year.

“We’ll quickly return to a bipartisan majority for wind energy as soon as the electioneering is over,” AWEA spokesman Peter Kelley said in an interview.

Yet if clean energy advocates doubted that their work is cut out for them with conservatives, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) offered a reminder at the convention.

“When I say all of the above, that doesn’t mean we’re going to subsidize all of the above,” Boehner told Greenwire at a lunch sponsored this week by the Christian Science Monitor. “I believe the marketplace will judge these various forms of energy in a much more efficient way than government can ever judge them.”

AEE in Ohio

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) had similar warnings for clean energy during his successful campaign in 2010. “We’d better be careful we’re not running up people’s utility bills with a plan that is not achievable,” he told a local newspaper that year, referring to Democratic incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland’s renewable power mandates.

Soon after its launch, AEE chose the Buckeye State for a pilot of an advocacy campaign it dubs Positive Energy that communicates the manufacturing benefits of support for renewable power. Richard credits that work with helping orient the energy bill Kasich approved in June toward more conservation.

“The perception around the advanced energy economy wasn’t well understood” when the group first got involved in Ohio, he said. “We were able to aggregate data in a way the governor hadn’t known about.”

Among those data sources is Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which provides investor-friendly analysis of the clean energy economy. Such services offer jobs and growth projections that are “always sort of in between the numbers being used for political gain” by ideologically inclined groups, Greeff said.

The Ohio program, along with a second pilot campaign in Arkansas, was successful enough that the group plans to expand it to other states in the coming months. AEE set aside a budget of more than $1 million for that effort, Richard said.

The proposal Kasich signed into law drew criticism from some environmentalists and wind backers for allowing waste-to-heat power to qualify under the state’s renewable power credit program.

The economic and swing-state sell

The looming expiration of the production credit for wind and solar drives much of the short-term debate in Washington over tax incentives for clean energy. However, both Richard and Kelley of AWEA said their groups are looking at the prospect of letting renewables companies be structured as master limited partnerships — a format often used by oil and gas firms — as a key priority for a tax overhaul that Congress is expected to begin working on in 2013.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) laid down a marker for such work earlier this year, offering a bill that would permanently open the partnership structure to nonfossil-fuel producers (Greenwire, June 7).

In preparation for that expansion of their goals, clean energy interests are courting Republicans with projections of jobs as well as cheaper, more reliable electricity. Wind is “clean power that never runs out, but it’s also holding down rates,” Kelley said, pointing to data that show the 10 states with the most wind energy have had the nation’s smallest increases in power costs.

AWEA and AEE also come to the GOP convention armed with ample survey data that show their priorities resonating with swing-state and red state voters. A Zogby Analytics survey released yesterday by AEE’s institute showed that 88 percent of Florida voters find advanced energy “very important” or “somewhat important” to the future of the country.

Renewables, efficiency and conservation advocates are prepared for what they describe as a necessary dialogue with Republicans.

“Budgets are so tight. There’s going to be so much pressure to cut spending,” Callahan of ASE said. “It’s going to be hard regardless of who’s in power. It’s going to be harder in the Romney White House because there’s education that needs to be done.”

One spot of good news for Callahan was visible to any delegate or guest crossing through the covered walkways into the Tampa Bay Times Forum this week. Casting red, white and blue light onto the walls are lamps that carry the same energy-saving light bulbs raged against by congressional conservatives.