Comment: With GOP split on clean energy, Democrats should act

Democrats must take the case for renewable energy to red states where the IRA’s gains could be reversed.

By Carl Pope / Bloomberg Opinion

The Republican effort to demonize clean energy across red-voting America has reached a reckoning.

The next six months will determine the success or failure of President Biden’s combined climate and reindustrialization initiative, the Inflation Reduction Act. It will also reveal whether the GOP can hold its coalition together in the face of a clean-energy dilemma and whether Democrats can use the economic boon that the IRA provides to split Republicans around pocketbook issues.

When Biden signed the IRA, his mood was celebratory. The legislation will “take the most aggressive action ever — ever, ever, ever — in confronting the climate crisis,” he said, and “save working families thousands of dollars” with $370 billion in rebates for efficient and electric appliances, rooftop solar and a $7,500 tax credit to buy new or used electric cars.

No Republican members of the House or Senate joined Biden’s ceremony; a right-wing counteroffensive had already begun. A week after the signing, Texas and Florida joined West Virginia in boycotting banks that appeared to favor renewable-power projects over coal, oil and gas. The Texas Public Policy Foundation quickly lined up Republican officials in other states to blackball financial institutions over alleged bias for renewables.

These bank bans — which have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in higher loan fees — are merely the most visible sign of a well-funded campaign by the national GOP to gin up conservative opposition by portraying clean energy as un-American. With most of the clean-energy rebates and tax credits going to projects outside urban areas in conservative counties and states, the IRA could fall flat on its face if rural communities are mobilized against clean energy.

Local bans on wind and solar projects form the core of the right’s strategy, and conservative rural communities — even in blue states — offer an ideal stage for the campaign. Even before the IRA, the coal industry succeeded in killing wind projects in two rural North Dakota counties. By November, the conservative drive had blocked renewable projects in Ohio and Michigan. The zoning commission in Piatt County, Ill., after months of hearings, unanimously rejected a proposed wind development.

Even some Republican governors, usually gung ho for the jobs and tax base brought by new factories and power plants, waded in. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin shocked his state when he canceled Virginia’s bid for a new, $3.5 billion battery plant in an impoverished rural area, calling it a “communist front” because of Ford’s Chinese partner. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott blamed renewable energy for his state’s woefully unreliable electric grid, which is overwhelmingly powered by coal and gas.

Republican members of Congress have joined the chorus. Rep. Kathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, chair of the House Energy Committee, called wind and solar deployment part of Biden’s “pro-[Chinese Communist Party] energy agenda,” even though the bulk of IRA funding is limited to replacing Chinese products with U.S. manufacturing. Senate freshman J.D. Vance of Ohio accused the IRA energy incentives of driving up inflation. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa warned of “Biden blackouts that would make it impossible to run fans and air conditioners on even the hottest days of the summer” thanks to “the Democrats’ push towards renewables.”

In the absence of any Democratic countercampaign aimed at rural sensibilities, support for wind and solar among Republicans has taken a steep downturn in the past two years, declining by about 10 points; though still exceeding 60 percent, Pew reports. That majority, though thinning, illustrates the potential to create a major split in the GOP between die-hard “go down with fossil fuels” factions in major coal and oil states and “bring on the jobs” advocates in states like Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Indiana.

Republican governors of Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia embraced new battery plants announced for their states. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina welcomed a new plant to his state, boasting, “South Carolina is going to become the Detroit of batteries.” He also promised Senate hearings to encourage building more U.S. battery plants. Even Florida’s Ron DeSantis vetoed a bill designed to discourage rooftop solar in his state.

Once the economic benefits start rolling in, communities that start out in opposition become converts. In Nebraska and North Dakota, residents have rallied to the defense of threatened wind projects. Democrats should take special note of the Texas Land and Liberty Coalition. Bringing together “ranchers, landowners and farmers” to support clean energy, the coalition boasts pro-renewables speeches by Republican former Texas governor and energy secretary Rick Perry.

Economic benefits converted the Texas coalition’s field secretary, Sam Davis, from a wind energy opponent to the holder of leases on seven wind turbines on his family’s Pecan Spring Ranch. “Renewable-energy projects are the saving grace for many rural communities. They are all we have left in the tool kit,” Davis testified to the Texas legislature in September.

With the IRA at their backs, Democrats should be laser-focused on educating rural communities on those economic benefits to prevent Republicans from defining renewable energy as only a climate-fixing mission of liberal-leaning urban America. If Democrats can copy their messaging from organizations like the Land and Liberty Coalition, Republicans would have a hard time preventing a clean-energy fissure in their party, speeding America’s future to cleaner, cheaper and safer energy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Carl Pope is a former chairman of the Sierra Club and the co-author, with Michael R. Bloomberg, of “Climate of Hope.”

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