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United States

Wind is caught up in bitter election battle

UNITED STATES: European eco-zealots with an anti-free market agenda are attempting to brainwash American children into supporting wind power with support from General Electric, Siemens, aeronautics company Lockheed Martin, Bloomberg New Energy Finance and accountancy firm Ernst & Young.

US President Barack Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney
US President Barack Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney

This emotive wording comes from a press release that announced a protest organised by the group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) against events in support of Global Wind Day in June.

Such rhetoric is part of an anti-wind opposition that is profoundly American in its conservatism and that sometimes has financial ties to the fossil-fuel industry. The attacks, often involving a network of think tanks and their supporters, are ramping up for the November general election. These critics also have pro-wind policies in their sights, such as the production tax credit (PTC) — due to lapse on 31 December — and requirements for a certain amount of electricity to be sourced from renewables, known as renewable portfolio standards (RPSs).

In September, a coalition of organisations describing themselves as "conservative and free-market", including AFP, sent a letter to all 535 members of the US Congress calling for an end to the PTC.

The impact of the attacks on policy — nationally or locally ­— is hard to gauge, especially given other influences such as the recession or which party controls Congress. But it seems no coincidence that as the organised anti-wind attacks have accelerated in the past few years, there has been an abrupt slowing down of the political backing of clean-energy development.

In 2007 and 2009, for example, the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the US Congress, approved bills that included a renewable-energy requirement, but this year the Obama administration is being criticised by Republicans for giving a $527 million loan guarantee to now-bankrupt solar firm Solyndra.

"It's not going to let up; it's going to accelerate," says Peter Kelley, vice president of communications at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). He points to wind's growing market share, campaign politicking and the recent unleashing of vast amounts of money in US elections as fuelling the anti-wind drive. This November's general election is the first since two court decisions in 2010 allowed unlimited amounts of money to be funnelled into political campaigns.

John Dunbar, managing editor at non-partisan watchdog the Centre for Public Integrity, says major political attacks are always funded by those with economic interest. "Most of it is marketing," he states. But Dunbar adds that the dynamic has changed in the past two years with the rise of the anti-tax Tea Party movement and a growth in moneyed organisations that support a fiscally conservative economy and are generally against government regulation.

Outside forces

Although some opposition to wind focuses purely on local issues with no ties to outside financial interests, there have been cases where anti-wind interests have opposed local project permits as part of a national campaign against renewable energy.

Ben Kelahan, a Washington-based political strategist and energy specialist at communications firm Five Corners Strategies, says: "While [anti-wind feeling] is a challenge for the wind industry, it's a natural sign of growth and arrival in a competitive market."

One of the causes, according to observers, is a general anger with President Barack Obama and, by association, anything he supports. This puts an extension of the PTC and a cap-and-trade market for greenhouse gases in the line of fire. "We've never had a president more favourably disposed towards renewable energy," says Robert Kahn, a long-time energy consultant. Obama's Republican rival, Mitt Romney, wants an end to the PTC, even though the programme has strong bipartisan support in Congress.

Indeed the attacks by right-wing special interests groups are occurring partly because the wind industry has long been perceived as "owned" by more liberal-leaning groups. "Obama's so closely allied to wind power, wind has become like a totem pole [that Obama's most strident attackers] want to take down," says Kahn.

He adds that the network of opponents can be hard to trace because the links are seldom divulged upfront. In contrast, AWEA, whose membership includes 2,200 companies, is upfront about its goals with its leadership council featuring, for example, representatives of turbine manufacturers GE and Siemens.

Nationally, AFP is funding numerous adverts this election season, especially in states where the vote might be close, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission. AFP bills itself as a think tank of "citizen leaders" who advocate "free-market environmentalism".

Credentials

Yet on closer inspection it appears that AFP receives funding that throws into question its grassroots credentials. It receives funding from the billionaire Koch brothers, according to the Koch Industries' website.

The Kochs — who made much of their fortune from fossil fuels — and their allies are expected to spend about $400 million on this year's elections. One of the brothers, William, has also helped bankroll the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a group that has been key in delaying the Cape Wind offshore wind project for 11 years. He is a director of the alliance and has a holiday home in the area.

AFP is also linked to the Tea Party, whose supporters in Congress are determined to let the PTC expire to
hurt Obama's re-election chances, according to an article in the Huffington Post in July by Carl Pope, former executive director of the Sierra Club, a long-established and influential environmental organisation. Obama has come out strongly in favour of extending the PTC and in support of green jobs.

The siege on renewables is coming too from the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which drafts model legislation for state lawmakers in many different areas of policy including pro-gun laws. The group has considered disseminating a bill to overturn RPSs, key drivers of America's wind development, although it has not adopted the idea.

On its website, ALEC says it is not anti-renewables but prefers the free market. Yet it is not known to have lobbied for ending America's fossil-fuel subsidies. ALEC's advisers include representatives of coal giant Peabody Energy, Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries.

Earlier this year, ALEC invited "anti-clean energy" groups to a meeting in North Carolina, according to a report by the Sierra Club published in August. AFP was represented at the meeting, says the report, as was the Heartland Institute, which caused controversy in May after it paid for a billboard advertisement comparing those who believe in man-made climate change to terrorist Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber.

Media watch

AWEA is dedicating resources to fight back. "We take misinformation about wind energy seriously. We have two people [who] start work at 6am each day to compile the best and worst coverage of wind," says Kelley. "They respond in the same news cycle to the worst of it. We pay attention to who is circulating such misinformation, and find that much of it can be traced to business competitors or people with an ideological agenda.

"We believe that the majority of Americans can tell the difference between such propaganda and the truth, if given the chance to hear both sides," Kelley adds. However, to counteract the attacks successfully, supporters say that the wind industry must continue to rebrand itself, especially in more conservative areas of the country, to negate the anti-wind message.

"Generally speaking, wind has done a good job at community relations — at convincing host communities that their projects are worthwhile," says Kahn. "[But] I think AWEA was taken by surprise by the viciousness of the attacks, [which] have been so visceral, so ugly, and they are not truth-bound, and it's hard to counter half truths," says Kahn. The wind industry is scrambling back, he adds. "But there have been political consequences. There are members of Congress who buy this [anti-wind] stuff, and this fight will only be won congressional district by congressional district."

Kelahan at Five Corners Strategies agrees. "The industry has a great story to tell the American public — jobs produced, local towns and schools expanded and saved, and kids with better health," he says. "But this is a story best told at the grassroots level by real people back home when Congress is looking and listening, not in Washington. That's why demonstrating public support and correcting the record at the project level is so important. It has value beyond one project permit."

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