In regions like the South, the potential for renewable energy abounds. That isn’t going over well with fossil fuel interests.
As the cost of renewable energy drops and its popularity rises around the country, Republican lawmakers in several key states are ratcheting up their attacks on wind power.
Data shows that renewable alternatives to energy sources like coal are increasingly cheaper, in addition to helping offset greenhouse gas emissions. But as they continue to gain prominence, power sources like wind are becoming a popular target for those with a vested interest in fossil fuels. Now, opponents are using everything from national security arguments to targeting tax incentives in order to hobble wind power.
“It’s the inevitability of change. [The] renewable industry is creating jobs, bringing money into the communities… it just gets harder and harder to justify why we shouldn’t be doing them,” said Molly Diggins, state director for the Sierra Club’s North Carolina chapter, in an interview with ThinkProgress.
North Carolina is one of several states in which lawmakers are pushing new proposals to undercut wind energy. State Sen. Harry Brown (R) has long positioned himself as a wind power opponent and this legislative session he is pushing Senate Bill 377, the “Military Base Protection Act.”
The bill argues that wind farms pose a national security risk and uses Department of Defense maps to essentially outlaw wind farms built on land within 100 miles of the state’s coast. Brown has received support from fellow state Sens. Norman Sanderson (R) and Paul Newton (R), the latter of whom was previously an employee of Duke Energy, one of the country’s largest utilities.
But the military already has veto power over any projects that are deemed a national security risk. North Carolina’s Amazon Wind Farm, the first large-scale wind farm in the state, went through years of review and permitting studies, in addition to coordinating with the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense. Proponents of renewable energy say arguments about national security are just another way for fossil fuel interests to dissuade potential wind and solar investments in the state.
“Wind energy, for states like North Carolina… [is part of] climate change goals,” said Cassie Gavin, a senior director with Sierra Club North Carolina. Gavin told ThinkProgress that wind energy plays a critical role in transitioning away from fossil fuels, a growing priority in North Carolina.
Whether or not Brown’s bill succeeds is up for debate — given the economic benefits wind power has brought to eastern North Carolina, advocates are hopeful the measure won’t get far.
But attacks on wind power aren’t helping proponents’ efforts to attract further investment. “This doesn’t encourage the industry to come to North Carolina,” said Gavin.
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Wind power has faced setbacks in a number of states in recent years, in areas across the country. Some opposition has been at the grassroots level — in states like Indiana and North Dakota, concerns over wind farms from local residents have resulted in the cancellation of proposed projects. Public support for renewable energy, however, is notably very high across the country, due to job creation and economic benefits.
But much of the real resistance has come from anti-wind activists and groups. In Oklahoma, for instance, organizations like the nonprofit Wind Waste have worked to undermine the industry, arguing against tax subsidies and what it has labeled the “harmful effects of Industrial Wind.” A commercial real estate agent founded the group in an effort to target the subsidies wind power receives in Oklahoma.
John Droz, a noted anti-wind activist who has marketed himself as a scientist, has targeted wind energy in New York, along with other states. He has falsely described climate change as “a scientifically unresolved matter” and has expressed support for figures like former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt.
According to tracking by the watchdog Energy and Policy Institute (EPI) shared with ThinkProgress, the coal industry has been an active player in efforts to undermine renewables. Oil and gas producers have also played a major role as the fight for the energy market has grown more competitive and renewables have emerged as a serious threat to fossil fuels.
“We’ve seen an increase in the coal industry’s direct involvement in efforts to block utilities from developing new wind and solar power projects in states like Ohio and Indiana,” Dave Anderson, EPI’s policy and communications manager, told ThinkProgress in an email. “Special interest groups backed by the fossil fuel industry, such as the Institute for Energy Research and Manhattan Institute, also work closely with a core group of vocal anti-wind activists to spread disinformation about wind power and attack local renewable energy projects.”
The political debate over wind power has grown especially heated in Texas, the nation’s top producer of wind energy. The Lone Star State leads the country in oil and gas production, but renewables play a significant role in the state’s energy mix, with wind in particular serving as a huge economic boon in many parts of the sprawling state. A report released this week by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) found that Texas is home to around 25% of the nation’s wind power capacity and that the industry is a major Texas employer.
That meteoric rise has attracted the ire of some powerful foes. The Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a right-wing think tank backed by the conservative Koch brothers, has come out swinging against wind power. TPPF has fought against efforts to regulate the energy market and its executives are unapologetically aligned with fossil fuel companies.
The group also wields some influence in the GOP-controlled Texas legislature, now in the midst of its biennial session, where a war over wind power subsidies is raging.
The legislature is weighing whether to end the tax break programs that have allowed wind power to prosper in Texas. This debate comes after the last legislative session, during which lawmakers succeeded in restricting wind turbines near military bases, much like the effort underway in North Carolina.
House Bill 2908 and Senate Bill 2232 would both authorize a study assessing the impacts of the tax credits on the state’s electricity market, something wind power opponents hope could lead to taxing the industry. But Joshua Rhodes, a research associate with the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, told ThinkProgress that targeting tax incentives for renewables is unhelpful in a state where wind has proven to be economically viable.
“If we’re going to study these, we should study them at all,” he said, noting that fossil fuels have benefited substantially from decades of subsidies, far more so than wind energy.
And he noted that support for the wind industry is bipartisan; many Republican lawmakers representing wind country have no reason to support measures that would hurt their constituents.
“There are a lot of rural districts in Texas,” said Rhodes, adding that sparsely populated West Texas in particular is a massive wind power hub. “Some of these wind projects are the only economic development they’ve had in decades.”
The wind power push-back is unlikely to end anytime soon, however. Texas is unique as a state that runs on its own electrical grid and energy sources are a major part of its economy, making the battle for the market more heated. And organizations like TPPF also pose a major hurdle. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, TPPF does not have to disclose its donors, but the think tank has a long history of advocating for oil and gas and opposing renewable alternatives, in addition to denying basic climate science. A lengthy investigation by the Austin-American Statesman found that the foundation is hard at work undermining renewables with no plans to back off of wind power.
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In both Texas and North Carolina, the issue of climate change looms in the background. Both states are still recovering from major hurricanes — Hurricane Harvey hit southeastern Texas in 2017 and Hurricane Florence devastated North Carolina’s coast a year later.
Many saw Florence as the first big test for renewables’ capacity to stand up to severe weather. While roughly a third of Duke Energy’s customers in North Carolina lost power during the initial days of the storm, solar farms were largely unscathed.
According to the U.S. government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment (NCA), such storms are only expected to grow worse due to global warming, while flooding and droughts will also become more common in the South.
“Texas is the largest global warming polluter in America. To stop the worst impacts of climate change, we must decarbonize Texas,” Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, told ThinkProgress.
Metzger said there is clearly reason for optimism about the rise of wind power in Texas and the growing appeal of solar energy. But he cited TPFF as a threat undermining that progression.
“TPPF is employing a strategy of a death by a thousand cuts. Cut some incentives here, forbid wind and solar farms in certain parts of the state there, mess with the rules of the electricity market here, and so on,” Metzger said. “If they’re successful, it could hamstring renewable energy development in the state where we need it the most.”
While the various attempts to undermine renewable energy may slow the industry’s growth in some states, the economic forecast is clearly positive. According to analysis released last month, replacing 74% of coal plants nationally with renewables would be cheaper than keeping them open, including in many Southern states. And as the cost of batteries continues to drop, renewables plus storage are even cheaper than natural gas in many applications.
That’s good news in places like Texas and North Carolina, as environmental advocates stare down attacks on wind power.
“Thankfully, wind and solar power have enormous support in the state,” said Metzger. “They’re hugely popular with the public.”