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United States

TIRED OLD MEN ARE NOT THE KEY

A review of the possible consequences of the Republican sweep in last month's elections. In Congress, the House of Representatives will be less pro-renewables, and less tolerant of a "command and control" environment strategy, unpopular even among Democrats. A fight over wind appropriations next fiscal year is looming. Hopes for the future are based on the fact that wind power has now become competitive, has been embraced by environmentalists and is of increasing interest to utilities.

The United States is still reeling after last month's Republican sweep. With fewer Democrats in Congress, a swing to the right is inevitable. Large cuts in spending are likely across the board, except in defence, as government meddling is viewed even more dimly. While taxes may ease for many businesses, breaks for the less-entrenched may recede. Renewables are unlikely to be spared the federal knife. Yet support for clean power does not follow party lines -- the White House remains unchanged, athough there is talk of axing the Department of Energy. But how much do Washington's changes matter to wind, and what is the significance at state level where more is happening anyway? So far, it is hard to tell.

In Congress, the House of Representatives has altered most. It will be less pro-renewables, less tolerant of a "command and control" environment strategy, an idea unpopular even among Democrats. A fight over wind appropriations next fiscal year is looming. Some Republican moderates slated to chair committees are likely to be challenged by conservatives. So instead of California's Carlos Moorhead, once AWEA wind man of the year, chairing Energy and Commerce because of seniority, we may get Virginia's pro-tobacco Thomas Bliley. Yet in the Senate, Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, current chair of Energy and Natural Resources and the Energy and Water sub-committee, has been persistently pro-oil. As one lobbyist said, how bad could it be? His successor is Oregon's Mark Hatfield, very pro-wind, while another sympathetic Republican from Oregon, Bob Packwood, is to chair Finance.

Even so, energy and environment have hardly been foremost under President Clinton. His mission, say aides, is to be remembered as the president who made the world safe for trade. Not humanity. Not the environment. Trade. One view of that may depend upon the likelihood of Worldwatch's scenario in "Power Surge" -- that a shift to efficiency and renewables is under way and inevitable. Others believe, more cynically, we lurch between crises, only changing when required and even then with glacial speed.

Businesses relying upon wind R&D should be concerned, although commercialisation will be less threatened. Those at places like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory may be on edge, too. Yet Hazel O'Leary still describes NREL's wind technology centre as part of cleaning up the Cold War's nuclear mess by nurturing industrial competitiveness, science, and technology instead.

Watch the hinterlands

Away from Washington, the dust in the states is settling more slowly. Instead of Gov Anne Richards in Texas, who appointed pro-wind Karl Rabago as a power regulator, we now have the oil-and-gas son of ex-president Bush. In New York, Gov Mario Cuomo, who appointed former SMUD chief David Freeman, a progressive energy thinker, to the New York Power Authority, has been replaced by a Republican whose energy views are not widely known.

But wind 's momentum has been building in the states as attitudes change among regulators and utilities and as wind is seen as supplemental income for farmers. We may not again see a legislature ordering a utility to buy wind, as happened in Minnesota even under a Republican governorship, but the tide does seem to have turned enough to withstand one election. The swing to the right would have been far more devastating a few years ago. Reaganism hit when renewables were infants. But wind now costs five or fewer cents a kWh. It's competitive, embraced by environmentalists and increasingly intriguing to utilities.

Two years ago Portland General Electric (PGE), having lost much respect over the Trojan nuclear plant, tossed a question to a market research firm: how could it make money that was "green" both financially and environmentally? The answer was wind. So next month PGE is testing three new "Share the Wind" ideas, a Visa card, a debit card and a certificate of deposit. A percentage of each transaction will go to a wind fund. It's a US first, although wind bonds are not unknown in Europe and have been popular there.

PGE's research may be more relevant than both the mid-terms and the shuffling about of those tired old men on Capitol Hill. What happens in the hinterlands is sometimes more important. America's wind industry was born in California and the West Coast is often the cutting-edge. PGE's ideas are a direct test of wind -- how much do people want it in homes and businesses, do they consider the future, and how seductive are today's warm and fuzzy ads from the likes of Chevron? As the PGE marketing firm said, "Something for you, something for your children's children." Keep watching "Share the Wind." It's the future.

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