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Tina Casey headshot

Renewable Energy Investing Gathers Steam as Anti-ESG Movement Falters

Renewable energy crossed partisan boundaries decades ago when red and blue states shared in the hydropower boom of the mid-20th century. More recently, some state officials have tried to push the clean power genie back in the bottle, but investors just can’t resist the opportunities.
By Tina Casey
wind farm in the country against blue sky with clouds - renewable energy

The renewable energy trend crossed partisan boundaries decades ago when red and blue states alike partook in the hydropower boom of the mid-20th century. More recently, some state officials have tried to push the clean power genie back in the bottle by ginning up action against ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing. They have achieved some success, but investors just can’t resist the opportunities offered by new clean technologies.

The anti-ESG movement is mostly hot air

In a new report, the consulting firm Pleiades Strategy tracked 165 bills introduced by Republican lawmakers across 37 states, all aimed at steering government pension fund managers and contracting agencies away from ESG principles. Since the “E” in ESG leans heavily on renewable energy, the main thrust of the legislation is to protect fossil energy stakeholders.

Last week, Pleiades reported that the legislative push has met with significant pushback. “This coordinated legislative effort, commonly referred to as the anti-ESG movement, generated massive backlash from the business community, labor leaders, retirees, and even Republican politicians,” a new report from the firm reads.

Among the 165 bills it identified, only 21 became law. Many were substantively amended to satisfy objections. “Broad escape clauses were added to limit the most draconian prohibitions, which experts have warned legally contravene the basic tenets of fiduciary duty, creating a ‘liability trap,’” the report reads. 

Renewable energy is not a new “woke” craze

The Republican-dominated state of South Dakota provides a living example of the extent to which anti-ESG office holders are out of step with business leaders.

Anti-ESG rhetoric is larded with scary talk that warns of a new “woke” threat taking over the country. But there is nothing new about renewable energy in the U.S., and South Dakota is a case in point.

In March, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem signed an open letter with 18 other Republican governors, warning that the “proliferation of ESG throughout America is a direct threat” that puts “investment decisions in the hands of the woke mob.”

Nevertheless, South Dakota continues to benefit from the 20th-century hydroelectric program. The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) notes that 3 of the 4 biggest power plants in South Dakota are hydropower facilities that were built more than 60 years ago.

South Dakota’s agriculture industry has also benefited from longstanding federal policies going back to the Energy Policy Act of 1978. South Dakota is currently the fifth-largest producer of bio-ethanol among the 50 states, all from corn.

In addition, South Dakota grabbed onto the wind energy coattails fashioned by Iowa and Texas legislators in the 1990s and early 2000s. Wind contributed more than 50 percent to South Dakota's grid in 2021, with hydropower coming in second, according to the EIA. Coal and natural gas each contributed less than a tenth. 

More wind power for South Dakota

Activity in the South Dakota solar industry has also begun to stir. But much attention remains focused on wind resources, including tribal lands. “Four of the nation’s top five reservations with the greatest wind-powered electricity generation potential are in South Dakota,” the EIA observes.

Transmission bottlenecks have been a roadblock to wind development in South Dakota, as in other states. Back in 2012, several South Dakota Sioux tribes organized to overcome the obstacles by forming the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority — which holds an estimated 60 gigawatts of potential wind capacity on tribal lands. Pending resolution of the transmission bottleneck, an initial tranche of projects is in the planning stages.

Diversification in the renewable energy field

New clean power technologies are also popping up in South Dakota. Much of that activity is focused on renewable natural gas (RNG), sourced from the state’s copious production of livestock manure.

At the start of the year, the Pennsylvania-based holding company UGI Corp. announced an investment of $150 million for two new RNG clusters in South Dakota, drawing from multiple dairy farms. The two projects add to a third cluster previously announced, with an investment of $70 million.

The Michigan company DTE Vantage also opened a massive RNG facility in South Dakota last summer. Another RNG company with a hand in the state is the global firm Biogest — which claims “RNG is the only renewable energy source that can be carbon-negative, as it significantly reduces methane emissions from agricultural operations."

ESG or not, new green fuel industries are growing

Sustainable aviation fuel is another new industry establishing a footprint in South Dakota. In 2021, the biofuel firm Gevo began laying plans for an aviation biofuel plant that leverages the state’s corn growers as well as its wind industry.

The Gevo facility broke ground last fall. It includes a green hydrogen system, representing still another potential new industry. With an ample supply of both renewable energy and water, South Dakota has all the basic ingredients for a green hydrogen industry that could lead to follow-on opportunities in green ammonia and e-fuels production.

South Dakota businesses want renewable energy

The Joe Biden administration issued a fact sheet last March that drew attention to supportive relationships between renewable energy producers and other businesses in South Dakota. The White House took note of the meat producer Kingsbury and Associates, which is investing in a new $1.1 billion processing facility in Rapid City. Kingsbury says the new plant will rely on renewable energy, including captured biomethane, to achieve bottom-line results in a competitive environment.

Another indicator comes from the solar developer GenPro Energy Solutions. In May, the company received equity growth funding from the in-state financial firm South Dakota Equity Partners and an established South Dakota investor. The partners launched a new GenPro branch that aims to “open doors to South Dakota and other regional energy providers desiring to develop utility-scale solar projects while embracing South Dakota values,” according to GenPro.

Against this backdrop, last week the Washington Post took notice when an unnamed lobbyist for the Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce “scolded the supporters of anti-ESG legislation.”

Speaking of “woke,” all of this should be a wake-up call for anti-ESG candidates. It may be too late to make a course correction in time for the all-important 2024 election cycle, but 2028 is right around the corner.     

Image credit: Kervin Edward Lara/Pexels

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