Clean Power Alternatives for Energy Independence

The public is fed up. They know that every barrel of oil we import from the Middle East helps regimes who don't share America's interest. Every gallon of gas burned on America's roadways contributes to asthma for children. And every time we import our energy, we're creating jobs abroad instead of here at home. There are alternatives to America's current dependence on foreign energy supplies. But don't look to the federal government to solve them. Their response to America's energy crisis is to give tax breaks to multinational energy companies raking in record profits -- a solution that is as short-sighted as it is unhelpful.

But where D.C. has dropped the ball, states are picking it up with more solutions than ever. The solutions are also building new and unique coalitions in the state -- between conservationists worried about climate change, unions and contractors interested in building jobs, public health advocates who want cleaner air, and national security voters who want to see America less dependent on the Middle East.

So what are states doing?

One set of approaches includes regulations to encourage the use of renewable fuels and to promote conservation generally. Among the policies being considered and enacted are:

  • Renewable Portfolio Standards (also known as Renewable Energy Standards) require energy wholesalers to buy a set share of their energy portfolio from clean renewable sources and Renewable Energy Targets set statewide goals for renewable energy development--policies that have been adopted in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, D.C., Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
  • Renewable Fuel Standards increase alternative fuel use at the retail level, especially at the gas pump -- a key tool for cutting oil imports that have been enacted in Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, and Washington.
  • Small Appliance Energy Efficiency Legislation requires appliances to use less energy, helps families save money, and helps the environment -- Arizona, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington all have standards tougher than the federal government.

Other measures use the taxation and budgetary power to drive development of energy alternatives:

  • Bonding Issues help drive investment in renewable energy technology and efficiency measures and are in place across the country, including California, Montana, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania.
  • Investing public funds in renewable development and energy efficiency through Public Benefits Funds (also known as Systems Benefits Funds) already operating in 25 states.
  • Public Pension Investments, as being tried in California, can allow states to harvest the public benefits and profits from renewables development.
  • There are also a number of Tax Incentive strategies for promoting renewables development.

Finally, there are strategies that simply alter the energy market landscape to make energy companies friendlier to renewable development and encouraging entrepreneurship. All this takes is a little shifting of incentives from old ways of thinking.

  • Net Metering and Interconnection help small alternative energy producers sell off excess energy directly onto the energy grid, replacing the old model where only major power plants could distribute energy to consumers. New energy micro-projects allow for small producers to become players in the energy marketplace, as long as barriers don't stand in their way. Interconnection legislation makes it more affordable for small producers to join transmission networks. Net Metering ensures that when small producers create more energy than they use, and feed that excess into the transmission system, that they are fairly compensated for their power. New Jersey leads the nation in these policies, which are key to creating clean energy entrepreneurship.
  • Oregon realized that utilities had a disincentive to promote energy efficiency and came up with a unique Decoupling policy to ensure that the business interest and the public interest are the same.

The lesson in state-after-state is that all that is holding back renewable energy development is a lack of federal leadership and the limits of our own imaginations.

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The Impact and the Opportunity: Broad Coalitions for New Energy Solutions

Pushing forward on the energy debate isn't just good policy. It's also great politics, as coalitions across the country are learning. In state after state, coalitions are building to suppoer America's clean energy future with alliances that include environmental groups, labor, agriculture, business, and religious groups.

One need look no further than the coalition of support behind the Apollo Alliance to see the strength of potential coalitions.

  • Business Organizations -- At a national level, renewable energy companies form the bulk of businesses supportive of renewable energy legislation, but independent contractors, ski resorts, and other environmentally-based businesses have a stake in clean energy.
  • Conservation Organizations -- Environmental groups are among the strongest advocates of renewable energy development in the country. With national organizations like the National Wildlife Federation, League of Conservation Voters, and Sierra Club throwing their weight behind the Apollo Alliance, strong allies can be found in virtually every state. Additional allies can be found with state and local environmental organizations, as well as the State PIRGs, which have a long history on energy issues.
  • Labor Unions -- Since the beginning, industrial unions like the United Steelworkers have been heavily supportive of the Apollo Alliance. Their endorsements from labor now include the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, Electrical Workers, Mine Workers, SEIU, Teamsters, and UAW, plus many other unions, state federations, and labor councils.
  • Religious Organizations -- Religious voters overwhelmingly approve of the goals of the Apollo Alliance -- better jobs, an independent America, and a cleaner planet. The Evangelical Environmental Network demonstrates the possibility of outreach to even the most conservative religious voters with mainline denominations an easier target for outreach.

The coalitions for energy change can be huge, because demand for real solutions is so widespread. A few simple steps can keep those coalitions in place. With the right tax incentives, many local businesses see new opportunities to build home-grown energy businesses in their states as an alternative to imports. With a commitment to make sure those new in-state jobs pay a decent wage, labor is an enthusiastic backer for these policies. The key is to recognize that we don't have to choose between a clean environment and decent jobs -- they go hand in hand with the right policies.

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Preventing the Right from Undermining Clean Energy

While many honest conservative legislators recognize the need for new directions in energy policy, the oil lobby continues to support a rightwing political movement bent on undermining any alternatives to the carbon economy, a point highlighted in Progressive States' recent report on state rightwing efforts.

They try to dress their opposition up in a lot of rhetoric, but the right knows that their position on energy policy is wrong and unpopular. Nothing made this more clear than President Bush's declaration in his State of the Union address that "America is addicted to oil." Of course, Bush's own record belies his words. He is about as interested in ending our addiction to oil as he is in exposing Jack Abramoff's activities.

The Bush Administration has increased our dependence on foreign oil, proposed cuts to renewable energy development, and proposed biofuel cuts. Amazingly, only hours after declaring to help cut back on the addiction, Bush sent out surrogates explaining that there was no real effort in place to cut back on the addiction.

Fortunately, the American public believes in progressive strategies on energy. Polling demonstrates more than 2/3 of Americans support increased funding for research into ethanol development. More than 3/4 support tax cuts for renewable energy companies (more than half oppose tax cuts to oil companies). And nearly 9 in 10 voters nationally express support for "an energy security program that would decrease oil dependence through higher fuel efficiency, more solar power, research and fuel cell technology." Support for a progressive agenda even cuts across party lines.

Who delivers the message does matter, however. Surveys show that voters see religious leaders, business leaders, and workers interested in better-paying jobs as some of the most effective advocates for these policies -- one reason clean energy coalitions including these groups have been so effective in recent years.

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