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Analysis: Can Congress compromise on clean energy?

(Photo by Phil Roeder via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Phil Roeder via Creative Commons)

The prospect for bipartisan energy policy was on the agenda last week in Washington.

Former members of Congress spoke last Wednesday about restoring the “legacy of bipartisan support for renewable energy” at a policy forum organized by the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE).

The next day, the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank separately released a set of recommendations (pdf) endorsed by a task force of Republicans and Democrats for improving the nation’s electricity grid.

The conversations around both events offer a few rays of hope that the heightened level of partisanship that’s bogged down the discussion of clean energy in recent years may be starting to fade.

“I think there are some positive signs,” said Joe Kruger, energy and environment director for the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Solyndra narrative fading

The election is over, the economy is improving, and mainstream support for clean energy continues to grow.

That said, any legislation faces a major hurdle in the House, where some conservative Republicans will still try to invoke Solyndra to slander any efforts to support renewables.

Some conservative Republicans, but not all. That nuance was on display at the ACORE forum.

Iowa Rep. Steve King, for example, receives consistently high marks from conservative groups, yet he broke with his party last year in the debate over extending the wind energy production tax credits.

He explained his support for renewables at the ACORE event, as reported by Stephen Lacey for Greentech Media:

“We’ve got to be a more reliable partner,” King said. “We do all of this [wind, solar, biofuels] and our country becomes more energy secure. … It’s the right thing to do.”

Modest expectations

In December, a Colorado Republican, Rep. Cory Gardner, and a Vermont Democrat, Rep. Peter Welch, announced a bipartisan energy efficiency caucus in the House.

Another promising partnership has emerged in the Senate between Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican. Wyden chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and Murkowski is the ranking Republican member.

The senators in November announced their intentions to “set the tone” for collaboration and seek to address “pent-up demand” for energy legislation. Congress hasn’t passed a major energy bill since 2007.

“Sen. Wyden and Sen. Murkowski are clearly looking for ways to work together,” said Richard Caperton, director of the clean energy investment program at the Center for American Progress.

Caperton doesn’t expect “revolutionary concepts” to emerge from this Congress, but there could be progress on more familiar topics such as nuclear waste storage, hydropower siting, and natural gas exports.

Phyllis Cuttino, director of the clean energy program at Pew Environment Group, has a similar forecast. Don’t expect an all-encompassing national energy bill, but there’s hope for some “smaller, common-sense bills,” she said.

One example is the Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act, which would extend a key fossil-fuel tax benefit to renewable energy projects. Murkowski is a co-sponsor of the bill, whose lead author is Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware.

‘A lot at stake here’

One possible explanation for this new cooperation is the growing competition U.S. cleantech companies face from abroad. The Pew Environment Group’s latest clean energy report frames the issue as a matter of American competitiveness.

“I think people are coming to realize that there’s a lot at stake here,” Cuttino said.

Shanelle Evens Montana, a legislative and regulatory affairs associate for EDF Renewable Energy, has noticed that change trickle up from the local and county level to the statehouse level.

“I do think that [economic] message is starting to get out there, I would say in the last two years a lot more than it was before,” Evens Montana said.

It’s a message that’s been embraced more quickly in some states — Iowa, for example — than others. And that should be expected, said Hank Habicht, a cleantech investor who co-moderated last week’s ACORE session on bipartisanship.

Habicht is a managing partner at Sail Venture Capital, a cleantech finance and investment group with offices in Irvine, California; New Orleans; Washington, D.C. and Toronto. He said in an interview that many energy issues are more regional than partisan.

“When you potentially have winners and losers, you need to understand that,” Habicht said. “If there is a geographic area that’s maybe losing jobs by virtue of a certain energy policy, the energy policy needs to, as much as possible, be mindful of that.”

‘Culture war’ over energy

Mindfulness on its own, though, is unlikely to un-do the “Solyndra-fication” of the energy debate–conservative Republicans’ use of the company’s collapse as an indictment of all clean energy policies, especially those supported by President Obama.

Cuttino said it’s possible a new energy secretary will reset the debate, if the new appointee is someone who wasn’t at the Energy Department during the time the Solydra loans were made.

Grist’s David Roberts was less optimistic last May when he wrote that evidence, reason and “common-sense solutions” can’t help clean energy avoid being sucked into a partisan “culture war” over The American Way.

“For the conservative base … the issue of energy is wrapped up in a way of life that they view as under threat from multiple directions,” Roberts wrote.

Kruger of the Bipartisan Policy Center said he thinks there’s enough “convergence of interests” behind its electric grid recommendations that they could find traction.

The report endorses a range of transmission reforms that would make it easier to integrate renewable power onto the grid. But they would also reduce power outages, which cost the U.S. economy $79 billion a year, according to a 2006 study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Rick Boucher, a former Democratic Congressman from Virginia who co-chaired the Bipartisan Policy Center electric grid project, was asked to comment on the prospects for transmission siting reform in Congress.

“I’ve learned from long years of experience that that is a hazardous exercise,” he said. “I think members of Congress who I know well and who are very thoughtful and farsighted in the way they evaluate the national interests, are going to listen to the arguments.

“I would say the prospects in Congress are good, and I’m sort of going to leave it at one word. I’m not going to put a percentage on it. It is going to be heavily debated, and this recommendation will not come without opposition.”

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