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Tina Casey headshot

Conservatives Embrace Renewables, But It’s Complicated

By Tina Casey
A new organization in Wisconsin demonstrates why the “right” end of the political spectrum is hopping on board the renewables train and driving it, too.

A new organization in Wisconsin demonstrates why the “right” end of the political spectrum is hopping on board the renewables train and driving it, too.

As the bipartisan movement in favor of renewable energy grows, self-identified conservatives are beginning to find their voice. A new organization in Wisconsin demonstrates why the “right” end of the political spectrum is hopping on board the renewable energy train and driving it, too.

The conservative case for renewable energy

To a large degree, the conservative case for renewable energy boils down to simple economics. Now that renewables are competitive on cost, it doesn’t make political sense for conservatives to support more expensive alternatives.

Though conservative thinking is closely identified with the Republican party, the new Wisconsin group aims for a party-neutral and economically sound appeal. Calling itself the Wisconsin Conservative Energy Forum, the organization stakes its claim as “Wisconsin’s Conservative Voice for Energy Solutions,or WCEF.

WCEF notes that from “Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to our own Governor Tommy Thompson, conservatives have long demonstrated a commitment to enacting responsible and cost-effective energy policy.”

From that platform, WCEF can make the case for renewable energy without compromising its conservative identity:

“In recent years energy markets have begun a cost-driven transition to renewable energy technologies, and conservatives are needed to lead an effort to secure affordable, reliable, clean, and efficient energy for Wisconsin ratepayers.”

Grassroots conservatives like renewable energy, too

WCEF is on safe ground politically when it makes the case for renewable energy.

Voters are already crossing party lines to support solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy, and politicians are taking note.

For WCEF, this amounts to an opportunity to attract more voters to the conservative side of the political fence. The organization states up front that “we believe conservatives can champion clean energy policy and grow support for the conservative clean energy movement.”

WCEF cites a November 2016 poll by its umbrella organization, the Conservative Energy Network, which found that “an overwhelming majority of voters support the development of clean energy sources like solar, wind, hydro, and bioenergy.”

That support is especially strong in the Great Lakes region, where Wisconsin is situated. In that region, the poll found that 86 percent of the state’s voters support action on renewable energy.

The Conservative Energy Network is itself a new organization. Launched in 2016, it serves as a clearinghouse for state-based conservative organizations like WCEF.

Like WCEF, its focus is on growing the conservative movement as well as advocating for clean power. 

That could end up with some unintended political consequences – and a warning for businesses in this age of “brands taking stands,” especially as more companies are searching for ways to bolster their sustainability chops. For example, among the Conservative Energy Network’s member organizations is the Christian Coalition of Florida, which has the aim of “standing in the gap to protect our traditional family values from a culture in freefall.”

But this embrace of renewables is complicated

Be that as it may, the proof will be in the pudding as far as WCEF’s activism on behalf of renewable energy goes. Not all independently organized groups that purport to advocate for renewable energy have the public’s best interest in mind. Some are affiliated with utility companies and other stakeholders, where the focus is on self-interest and control of the energy marketplace.

In addition, conservative organizations that straightforwardly favor renewables may be in for some rough-and-tumble play, as different parts of the renewable energy sector compete with each other.

A recent article in the Wisconsin State Journal teased out the marketplace for renewables as it relates to Wisconsin:

“One of the casualties of the falling cost of wind and solar has been biomass digesters, which convert cow manure -- one of the dairy state’s largest resources and liabilities -- into energy.”

As reported by the State Journal, utilities in Wisconsin had been providing higher rates for digesters. Now that other renewables are more competitive, the premium rates are melting away and the digesters may not be as profitable — or not profitable at all.

The conservative case for the New Green Deal

Although WCEF makes its main case on a strictly bottom-line basis, the organization does leave itself some wiggle room to support the state’s dairy industry through price supports or other incentives that keep less-than-competitive forms of renewable energy in the mix.

The group emphasizes that energy diversity as an important aim, and that each state should promote energy diversity based on regional considerations.

WCEF also takes environmental activism into account, stating that “ratepayers should have an active role in determining energy policy that is affordable, reliable and adaptable, and that protects our environment and public health.”

If this is beginning to sound a little Green New Deal-ish, that’s no accident.

Though the language in the proposed Green New Deal is rather strong, in essence the proposal simply fleshes out the basic tenets of the corporate social responsibility movement, especially as it relates to renewable energy.

Taking climate change as a jumping-off point, the Green New Deal calls for stimulating renewable energy development both as a means of addressing an over-arching global issue while also creating new opportunities and a healthier environment locally.

The WCEF version leaves out the part about climate change while neatly (though perhaps unintentionally) applying the Green New Deal to Wisconsin:

“Leveraging Wisconsin’s transition to clean and renewable energy will stimulate our economy, lower electricity costs, protect our national and grid security, reduce pollution, and improve the public health for all Wisconsinites.”

Well said!

Image credit of Wisconsin State Capitol: J. Pellgen/Flickr

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey