Do Republicans really believe that renewables run counter to their values or their electability? Not quite.
Even with the United States' polarization crisis, local and state leaders are creeping toward consensus on investment in renewables.
The mayor of one Indiana city describes the logic that's propelling wind and solar across the American political map, far from the predictable partisan narrative.
As an international student from Canada, I have read with confusion about how party affiliation tends to predict an American’s willingness to trust science. According to a 2016 Pew Research Poll, 7 out of 10 liberal Democrats “trust climate scientists a lot to give full and accurate information about the causes of climate change, compared with just 15% of conservative Republicans." Yet as a student learning about clean energy finance, I see fissures in the partisan barricades. According to a more recent poll from 2019, 62% of Republicans want U. S to prioritize renewable energy over fossil fuels. For investors and entrepreneurs, a window for action may be opening.
Even if Republican politicians tend to demonize climate leaders, more people in Republican-governed counties and states are living with climate disruption and more local leaders are pivoting to prioritize renewable energy. Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa are generating approximately 30% of their electricity from wind. Oklahoma’s Republican party controls the state’s legislature, governorship, and Senate delegation. The state has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1968. Still, at the end of 2020, 40% of Oklahoma’s total electricity was generated from renewable resources and Oklahoma has 10,300 MW of renewable energy capacity .And in Indiana, where voters replaced a holdout Democratic senator with a Republican in 2018, Republican mayor James Brainard talked to me about harmony between a Republican outlook and a renewable investment strategy.
Mayor Brainard of Carmel sets a cooler tone than national Republicans. Texan Senator Ted Cruz tweeted “hope you don’t like air conditioning” to mock California’s power outages in August 2020, and then fabricated tales of wind energy somehow causing the power crisis in his state six months later. By contrast, Mayor Brainard says he works to convivence voters that renewable energy is the way to go for both the environment and their pocketbooks. As we’ll see, he’s not alone.
Mayor Brainard framed our conversation around common values. No matter what your political beliefs are, he posited, you do not want polluted air or water for yourself, your family, and your community. And he says this in a state that still burns a lot of coal. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, Indiana is the “fifth-largest producer of bituminous coal” in the United States and “the eighth-largest coal producer” in the United States.
With this basic human condition in mind, he says it is not that difficult to convince people to switch to clean energy as most Indianans know the environmental toll coal and coal fired power plants have. One of his initiatives from the federal Covid relief money that Carmel received was to replace 95% of the older streetlights with LED streetlights, addressing energy efficiency. Carmel also passed a city resolution to “reduce carbon emissions, increase energy efficiency and renewable energy use, in order to create a climate change-resilient City of Carmel that will protect the children and grandchildren of this community”.
Through tactics like these, this Republican mayor engages Republican voters who don’t necessarily accept the fact of climate change to support renewable energy. In our conversation, the mayor noted a political nuance that helps public financing of renewable energy. He said that several old-school Republicans are socially liberal, but economically conservative. Yet in statewide and Congressional elections, Republican adherence to lower taxes and deregulation - grounded in facts, figures, and innovative idea- tends to erode in a primary process during which moderate candidates face extremists who rally their aggrieved base. Mayor Brainard says that voting results from this process does not effectively tell the mindset of people.
A bit of context for Carmel is that it is a fiscally conservative, yet socially liberal city where most of the people are heavily educated and wealthy, unlike other cities in Indiana. Approximately 70% of adults over 25 in Carmel have a bachelor’s degree, and median income runs above $100,000. It’s possible that such demographics sustain the traditional Republican values Mayor Brainard emphasizes more thoroughly than those where the rich have gotten excessively affluent or where self-sorting has aggravated isolation.
Yet big wind projects are being planned or built in Republican-controlled states such as North Carolina and Texas. The Kitty Hawk Offshore Wind Farm in North Carolina is being planned by Avangrid Renewables, which hopes to generate 2.5 GW of power from the site. This would comprise a 122,405-acre offshore wind farm. The federal public comment period for the project, which could supply power to Virginia, ended on August 30. Another huge project has started moving through the approvals process in Texas.
The third largest wind farm being planned in the United States is in Carbon County, Wyoming, which used to be one of the largest coal, oil and natural gas producers in the country. Carbon County lost many fossil fuel jobs due to automation and mechanization. Power Company of Wyoming LLC, a concern based in Denver, is planning on building a 3,000 MW onshore wind farm on 2,000 acres of land. Deliberations over the project, including the possibility of a wind tax, have continued over the past year.
Mayor Brainard told me that in local politics, people connect to governments in a more intimate manner than their state or national government because they can frequently interact with their local leaders. With that accountability, he said, he focuses on the economics of renewable energy “I was [once] clearly talking to a conservative guy who did not believe in the science behind climate change. You know there are different ways to get to the same endpoint. I said that if you do not believe in climate change, okay. But you are getting 21% return on investment and lower electricity cost. And he said: oh, it is a good idea, then."
Despite the tweets from national figures and in keeping with the 2019 poll results, signs have emerged that pragmatic investments look more credible to more Republicans. The American Conservation Coalition, a conservative climate think-tank, averred the following in a July 2020 blog post: “in most cases, red states are not pursuing renewable energy projects to signal their commitment to reducing emissions. Rather, government officials in these states understand that transitioning to clean energy is a smart investment. Doing so creates jobs, lowers electricity costs for constituents, and attracts climate-conscious businesses”.
These political shifts can uplift thousands of lives. Even if certain Americans do not believe in climate change, we can all get behind clean air, clean water, good paying jobs, economic development, and cheaper electricity bills.