Renewable Energy Overpowers ALEC

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Windmills lining the Altamont Pass generate electricity on Sunday, May 12, 2013, near Livermore, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Windmills lining the Altamont Pass generate electricity on Sunday, May 12, 2013, near Livermore, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Earlier this month, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), celebrated its 40th birthday in Chicago, where the group’s corporate and legislative members gathered to discuss policy plans and new model legislation for the coming year. It was a party of multiple themes, touting the usual ALEC agenda of cutting taxes, reducing the power of unions and finding new ways to spend public funds on privately operated schools. But perhaps the most urgent discussion point was the one surrounding what are known as renewable portfolio standards (RPS) — laws that promote cleaner energy sources to better protect our fragile environment. For the past year, ALEC and its members have been rolling out legislation that attempts to repeal these laws.

Their effort, for the most part, has failed.

RPS regulations exist for a variety of reasons. They promote a healthier environment through the use of renewable energy like wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and some types of hydroelectricity. They also promote the development of industries that, according to a study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “provide jobs and bring investments, tax revenues and other substantial economic benefits to local communities.” Lastly but not least importantly, their goal is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, which contribute significantly to climate change.

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have RPS laws on the books, requiring a certain percentage of utilities to derive power from renewable sources.
According to the North Carolina Solar Center, 29 states and the District of Columbia have RPS laws on the books, requiring a certain percentage of utilities to derive power from renewable sources. While many support the laws, ALEC cites its own set of reasons for wanting to tear them down. A 2013 ALEC report claims that renewable energy mandates “harm consumers and job creation,” concluding that any increased energy costs caused by RPS laws will incite companies to take their business to other states. But what the report doesn’t say is that some companies benefit from mandated renewable standards. They are — no surprise here — those in the clean energy industry. Because states with RPS legislation have clean energy quotas to fulfill, the demand for such business is on the rise. The Environmental and Energy Institute, a nonprofit that promotes environmental sustainability, found that more than 100,000 jobs related to the renewable energy industry were created in 2012 alone. In Ohio, for example, over 100 wind-supply chain businesses are now providing jobs to 7,500 people, a number that has grown significantly since the state first established its 2008 renewable energy standard. And in Kansas: more than 12,000 jobs have been created thanks to the state’s 19 wind farms, driven in large part by RPS legislation.

Still, RPS laws are not good news for everyone. Coal and oil companies have little to gain from legislation that limits the consumption of the products they sell. Cue ALEC, a group that takes the interests of fossil fuel giants to heart. Among ALEC’s corporate coterie are Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil and Peabody Energy, although other corporate giants like Coca-Cola, Walmart and even General Electric have chosen to rescind their membership in the wake of recent controversy over certain ALEC model bills.

And the legislation has its critics even among those outside ALEC. For the past few years the Beacon Hill Institute (BHI), a free market think tank at Boston’s Suffolk University, has released studies concluding that RPS laws will increase the cost of electricity and reduce investment. (In their Wisconsin report, for example, BHI states that by 2016, RPS will “lower employment by an expected 1,780 jobs” and “reduce real disposable income by $128 million.”) But the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) finds BHI’s methodology “severely flawed,” believing that the studies overestimate clean energy costs while disregarding existing provisions that put a cost cap on increased electricity rates.

That’s not going to stop ALEC. Last year, the group published its 2013 legislative priorities list, revealing that an effort to dismantle state RPS laws would be chief among them. The group adopted a model bill called the “Electricity Freedom Act,” which, despite its name, would actually limit the freedom of states to set their own renewable energy standards by repealing those standards entirely. According to a report filed by the Washington Post, the bill was drafted with the help of the Heartland Institute — a libertarian think tank that pushes an aggressive agenda of climate change denial. There’s a bit of a money trail here: according to the Post, ExxonMobil gave the Heartland Institute a total of $736,500 between 1998 and 2006. In 2011, the Institute received $25,000 from groups affiliated with the Koch brothers, whose company Koch Industries holds high stakes in oil and energy. All three attended ALEC’s birthday party in Chicago.

Unfortunately for ALEC and its cohorts, the effort to dismantle state renewable energy standards has — at least so far — not gone well. Though the National Resources Defense Council reports that more than 45 RPS-weakening bills were introduced during 2013 legislative sessions, not a single one of them passed. (For advocates of action to mitigate climate change, this number is an improvement from last year, when both Ohio and New Hampshire passed bills limiting their states’ RPS mandates.) Instead, 14 new, pro-renewable energy bills have become law nationwide.

For corporations like Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy, this deals a blow. Compared to other ALEC model bills, like the ALEC “Castle Doctrine Act” that has served as a model for the nation’s now infamous Stand Your Ground laws, the Electricity Freedom Act has been a dud. But ALEC isn’t giving up.

In Chicago, ALEC held a workshop entitled “The Economic Benefits and Political Challenges to Coal Exports” while pushing a different bill, the “Market-Power Renewables Act” — a bill that would presumably pick up the slack left by the failure of the “Electricity Freedom Act.” Gabriel Elsner, director of the Checks & Balances Project told the Midwest Energy News that ALEC’s 2013 model legislation is a “stealth attack” on RPS’s:

[The model bills] are framed in a way that makes them seem pro-clean energy, but would open up RPS’s to allow sources of electricity – from large hydropower to landfill gas — to be included in state laws that are supposed to incentivize clean energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal. The net effect would be reduced incentives for local, clean energy development in states that adopted this new bill.

Of course, if this year’s version fails like 2012’s did, there’s always next year. Global energy giants don’t appear poised to drop out of ALEC any time soon, and if they left the group’s 40th birthday bash without a successful model bill in their goody bag, one suspects they’ll be back looking for something new after the 41st.

Laura Macomber is an associate producer at Okapi Productions. She is a former employee of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, where she produced news stories for the company’s live journalism events, Women in the World and The Hero Summit. Follow her on Twitter: @Lemacomber.
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