Mid-term elections: Renewable energy cleans up

The gale-force winds that reshaped the political landscape this November augur well for new initiatives to substitute fossil fuel use with renewable energy.

To a degree unmatched in previous elections, candidates articulated an energy agenda that emphasized greater reliance on bioenergy, wind, solar and conservation—and won, often by convincing margins. The renewable energy tide swept through not only both chambers of Congress but also many statehouses across the country. Only the Southeastern states seemed to escape its impact.

For example, the incoming governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, distinguished himself by endorsing the controversial Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound. Patrick’s sensible support for what could be the nation’s first offshore windpower plant is a welcome departure from the unremitting hostility that his predecessor, Mitt Romney, directed toward it.

In Patrick’s eyes, Cape Wind is the only large-scale generating option that does not add to the load of greenhouse gases emanating from Massachusetts sources. Contrast that understanding with Romney’s decision to pull Massachusetts out of a New England-wide greenhouse gas reduction initiative, and you’ll begin to appreciate just how much more friendly toward renewable energy the Bay State will be.

Here in Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle repeatedly pointed to his leadership on energy policy, highlighted by the recently adopted Efficiency and Renewables Law, as a compelling reason to return him to office.

This law, which will increase the renewable energy content of the state’s electricity to 10 percent by 2015, was the culmination of a bipartisan, deliberative, consensus-building process that took more than two years to complete.

By contrast, Doyle’s challenger, Congressman Mark Green, was unable to persuade voters that he, too, staunchly supports renewables. Moreover, voter perceptions of Green were colored by his long association with the “drill ’em dry” camp in the House of Representatives, as exemplified by Tom DeLay and Richard Pombo. The disparity in their respective energy agendas contributed to Doyle’s surprisingly easy re-election.

There were a few Republicans, like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who chose effective governance over the strident partisanship that characterizes the 109th Congress. This summer, Schwarzenegger and the Democratic-controlled state legislature worked cooperatively to pass a landmark law that seeks to cut California’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent, dropping them to 1990 levels by 2020. This initiative will undoubtedly increase renewable energy’s market share in the Golden State.

For clean energy supporters, the sweetest moment came when voters in California’s 11th District handed the aforementioned Richard Pombo a stinging defeat. Pombo, who has never met an environmental law he didn’t try to repeal, is the architect of a House bill that would open up the entire Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas drilling. In a symbolic twist, Pombo lost to a challenger, Jerry McNerney, who has worked in the wind energy industry for more than two decades.

The campaigns of Patrick, Doyle, Schwarzenegger and McNerney succeeded in framing renewable energy as an economic development strategy that also happens to prevent pollution and address national security. And, as happened during Doyle’s and Schwarzenegger’s first terms, it is possible to mobilize strong bipartisan backing for pro-renewable energy initiatives even in the teeth of an election year.

The election results are indicative of two positive developments: that Americans are taking energy issues more seriously, and that renewable energy’s appeal now transcends partisan affiliations. We now have, for the first time in many years, a window of opportunity to establish a responsible national energy policy instead of the smorgasbord of subsidies we now have.

Indeed, the message from the voters could not be clearer: let conservation and renewables lead the way to a cleaner, healthier, more secure energy future.

Michael Vickerman is executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, an independent, nonprofit organization that acts as a catalyst to advance a sustainable energy future through public policy and private sector initiatives. For more information about RENEW’s work, visit its web site, www.renewwisconsin.org. These commentaries also posted on RENEW’s web log: http://www.zmetro.com/community/us/wi/madison/renew.

From the Nov. 29 – Dec. 5, 2006, issue

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