December 19, 2012

Renewable energy laws in cross-hairs of conservative groups

Renewable energy advocates made an unsuccessful push last year to expand Missouri’s green power law and help lessen the state’s dependence on fossil fuels.

But the same groups may spend 2013 on defense, working to fend off a movement among conservative groups such as the Heartland Institute and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform that seek to dismantle such mandates across the country.

Their tool for doing so is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed group of mostly Republican state legislators, that adopted model legislation this fall — a blueprint for members to use to repeal renewable energy laws in their home states.

Given ongoing battles over how Missouri’s renewable energy law is implemented, wind and solar energy backers here are bracing for efforts to weaken the law or get rid of it.

“I fully expect there to be increasingly strong attacks,” said P.J. Wilson, executive director of Renew Missouri. The group authored the 2008 ballot initiative that required investor-owned utilities to gradually increase their use of renewable resources.

One flashpoint is a Nov. 15 report from the Beacon Hill Institute, a free-market think tank at Boston’s Suffolk University, that says Missouri’s law will cause electric rates to rise 15 percent, costing the state thousands of jobs and diverting millions of dollars of private investment to other states.

Critics say the report is flawed, but they fear it’s just the type of material opponents of the green power law would like to circulate at the Capitol.

In particular, the Beacon Hill report ignores a key consumer protection — a cap to keep electric rates from rising no more than 1 percent as a result of the green power requirement.

Michael Head, a Beacon Hill research economist, said the rate cap wasn’t part of the group’s analysis because it is complex and it was unclear how the rule would be interpreted by utility regulators.

“It was worded in a way that it just seemed impossible to even attempt to know what they meant by it,” he said.

Beacon Hill also assumed regulators, if forced to choose between enforcing the renewable energy requirement or the rate cap, would choose the former.

Rebecca Stanfield, an energy policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the assumption is wrong. “I know of no instance when the commission has said, ‘Let’s ignore the rate cap,’” she said. “Their tendency is to be superconservative.”

Renew Missouri, the group that authored the 2008 renewable energy ballot initiative, had Chicago-based utility consultant Martin Cohen critique the Beacon Hill report. A former Illinois utility regulator, Cohen is no stranger to the Missouri law. He prepared an economic analysis for Renew Missouri before it the measure was put to voters.

In a memo, Cohen said the Beacon Hill report is riddled with flaws and omissions that “add up to a significant overstatement” of the likely costs. It also doesn’t attempt to include jobs the measure has helped create in Missouri, he said.

One fact not included in the Beacon Hill report is who ordered it.

Critics point to Beacon Hill’s financial ties to brothers Charles and David Koch, who control petrochemical conglomerate Koch Industries Inc. and are among the vocal skeptics of global warming. They say the same fossil fuel interests also back other groups targeting renewable energy laws, including ALEC.

David Tuerck, Beacon Hill’s executive director, said the group’s research is grant-funded. He said the Koch brothers’ contributions to Beacon Hill is no secret, but that the money didn’t go to support work on renewable energy laws. He said the Missouri report was commissioned by a foundation that wants to remain anonymous.

Tuerck said there’s no tie between the Missouri report and ALEC’s model legislation for the repeal of renewable energy laws.

Todd Wynn, head of ALEC’s energy, environment and agriculture task force, likewise said there’s no relationship, even though the group frequently cites reports from Beacon Hill and similar groups to support its position.

Wynn said the model legislation — the Electricity Freedom Act — stemmed from legislators’ concerns about the impact of renewable energy standards on their states’ economies.

“We’ve always been opposed to mandates that force politically preferred energy sources to others,” he said.

Missouri is among 29 states with some form of renewable energy requirement.

The law requires investor-owned utilities like Ameren to gradually increase use of wind and solar power and other renewable resources through 2021 when 15 percent of the power they sell must come from renewable resources such as the sun or wind. A tiny fraction of that 15 percent must be solar energy, and utilities are required to offer a $2-a-watt rebate for small solar projects.

Missourians voted by a 2-1 ratio to approve the green power law in 2008. But implementing it has led to disagreements before state regulators, the General Assembly and the courts. The Western District Court of Appeals weighed in on the issue just a week ago.

The court ruling over how the 1 percent rate cap is measured was a victory for renewable energy groups. And the decision could prompt utilities and big energy consumers to seek legislation to change how the cap is enforced by the commission, said Warren Wood, Ameren Missouri’s vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs.

The St. Louis-based utility has no intention of pushing to remove the law, which it says has been helpful in transitioning the state to cleaner sources of electricity.

“But we need to do it in a way that minimizes the impact on customer rates,” Wood said.

So far, legislative efforts to repeal renewable energy mandates in states such as Ohio and Michigan have been unsuccessful.

But environmental groups and renewable energy supporters across the country are girding for another push to undo them.

Missouri, where a number of ALEC-inspired bills have been introduced in past years, could be among the battlegrounds. ALEC’s Missouri co-chairs include Speaker of the House Tim Jones, R-Eureka. Republicans own a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly. And the Legislature has shown little hesitation in previous sessions to overturn voter-approved laws.

“It’s something renewable energy advocates are taking seriously,” said Caperton, who is from Marshall, Mo. “We know these groups are highly influential at the state level and they have a record of success in getting things implemented even though the public may not like them.”

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