Why you should care

Because renewables don’t have to be a partisan issue.

With a fossil fuel-loving Texan in charge of the Department of Energy and a young administration’s carving knives out for non-military spending, the outlook would appear grim for national research and funding for green energy projects. Taite McDonald begs to differ. A policy adviser for the Washington lobbying powerhouse Holland & Knight and a specialist in clean energy technology, McDonald has a fresh executive-branch pitch for a new Republican era: De-emphasize electric vehicles’ impact on global warming and talk more about preventing jobs from moving to China.

“We’re in a position where Republicans are now understanding that there is a market value for clean energy solutions, and not just a climate value,” she says. McDonald is one link in a chain of Republican clean energy advocates in Washington, including newly confirmed Energy Secretary Rick Perry himself, but the definitions have changed, and the fight for government dollars is getting fiercer.

… Republicans are now understanding that there is a market value for clean energy solutions and not just a climate value.

Taite McDonald, senior policy adviser, Holland & Knight

About 60 percent of the Energy Department’s $30 billion budget goes to managing and cleaning up after our nuclear weapons arsenal. Much of the remainder is devoted to research programs. The DOE helped develop natural gas fracking, for example, with research in the 1970s followed by decades of bipartisan support for research grants and loan guarantees. Then Solyndra happened.

In 2009 the Obama administration gave the politically connected solar panel company a $535 million loan guarantee, and President Obama touted it as a stimulus-bill success story, but two years later the company defaulted and declared bankruptcy. The flop was but a sliver of the stimulus package’s $80 billion in clean energy investments — which included a loan to now-booming electric vehicle maker Tesla — but it wreaked outsize political damage. “That was a very unfortunate flashpoint,” says Rich Powell, managing director of policy and strategy for ClearPath, an organization that encourages Republicans to back clean energy investment. “It played into all of the critiques of government getting too involved in the private sector that conservatives legitimately have.”

North Carolina technology entrepreneur Jay Faison founded ClearPath in 2013 and put in $175 million of his own money to make the GOP a bit greener. But ClearPath is not in sync with established environmental groups, in part because it defines clean energy differently. Wind and solar were the Obama administration’s favorites, while ClearPath is pushing hydroelectric power, nuclear energy, fracking and capturing carbon emissions from coal plants as a multipronged battle against climate change. “I don’t care how we take carbon out,” Powell says, adding that renewables alone won’t power the country. Environmentalists warn of high ancillary costs that range from the disposal of nuclear waste to the devastation of mountaintop-removal coal mining.

Powell is pushing to maintain research for energy breakthroughs and to encourage private sector competitions for X Prizes in energy technology. One important but underdiscussed aspect is the need to improve the electrical grid for better storage and distribution of power. Consumption and generation fluctuate at different rhythms — whether the energy is generated by unpredictable wind gusts or steady nuclear fission.

The DOE already is bracing for a hit as the Trump administration prepares its budget request for next year; until then Congress is in wait-and-see mode. The White House, which did not respond to a request for comment, has said it intends to bump the military budget by $54 billion, with corresponding cuts in domestic programs. A budget blueprint by the influential conservative Heritage Foundation, which has many fans in the new administration, takes a meat cleaver to the agency, eliminating (among other items) the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a $300 million program created under the stimulus law to boost risky energy research.

Perry, the former governor of Texas and two-time presidential candidate who will preside over the coming shift, carries a rich history with wind energy. West Texas is fertile ground for wind farms, and as governor Perry approved a $7 billion project to transmit wind-generated electricity to the state’s population centers. Texas now is the top state for wind energy and outproduces all but five countries. But critics point to his efforts to fast-track new coal plants — mostly blocked by public protests and lawsuits — and his rejection of climate change science. Andrew Dobbs, program director and legislative director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment, says Perry’s main role in the state’s wind energy development consisted of not getting in the way. Otherwise, Dobbs does not give the former governor high marks. “I would say he brought the planet closer to devastation,” he says, “and that his energy policies threaten all living things on the planet.”

Going from presidential candidate to cabinet official, Perry has ditched some of his Texas swagger. He now says he regrets calling for the elimination of the DOE. (You may recall he couldn’t remember the DOE as the third agency he wanted to kill in a 2011 presidential debate, along with Education and Commerce.) He admits the planet is warming, and humans are causing at least part of it. The bespectacled former governor voices support for research funding, telling senators he will lobby the White House against draconian cuts. But Perry also said during his confirmation hearing that he would redirect research funds from renewables to fossil fuels. “Don’t get me confused with the previous administration,” Perry said, adding a hearty chuckle.

No one would confuse Perry with the well-coiffed MIT physics professor he replaces, Ernest Moniz. But as the Texan makes the DOE’s case in the White House and on Capitol Hill, he does bring salesmanship and a keen understanding of which way the political winds are blowing.

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