POLITICS:

Wind, solar groups quit ALEC as conservative powerhouse targets clean-energy programs

Two renewable energy industry groups have dropped out of the American Legislative Exchange Council, citing the conservative coalition's efforts to wipe out state-level clean energy programs.

ALEC connects businesses and about 2,000 state lawmakers to push free-market legislation, and state lawmakers who are members of ALEC often introduce the model bills in their home legislatures -- an increasingly controversial practice that has been widely criticized by liberal and environmental groups and some government watchdogs.

The American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association joined the industry-backed coalition for a year because they wanted a "seat at the table" to discuss hot energy issues, said AWEA spokesman Peter Kelley.

But the groups decided to drop out after ALEC adopted the "Electricity Freedom Act" model bill in October, which would end requirements that utilities generate a set amount of electricity from renewable sources, such as wind and solar (E&ENews PM, Nov. 5, 2012). SEIA allowed its one-year membership to expire last fall, and AWEA dropped out earlier this month.

SEIA's decision to drop out was also fueled by ALEC's refusal to take up a SEIA proposal to ease permitting costs for distributed generation, said Carrie Cullen-Hitt, a senior vice president for the solar industry group. "We didn't get very far with that," Cullen-Hitt said.

Now, AWEA is warning state lawmakers not to be taken in by ALEC's message, one that Kelley said is driven by fossil fuel companies. He pointed out that conservative think tank and climate skeptic Heartland Institute told The Washington Post last year that it had joined ALEC to write language to revise state renewable energy mandates in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

"We want to warn our former fellow members of ALEC about that misinformation because we won't be around to protect them," he said.

Environmental and clean energy groups cite watchdog websites that show companies like Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil Corp., Duke Energy and Peabody sit on ALEC's energy, environment and agriculture task force and have a hand in crafting energy legislation.

"There are 29 states that have renewable portfolio standards, and it's my understanding that ALEC is targeting each one," said Bill Gupton, an outreach director at Consumers Against Rate Hikes.

Renewable energy development on the state level has drawn much of the energy sector's attention in recent months as efforts to forge a climate bill on Capitol Hill become increasingly unlikely.

Kelley said that although the notion of RPS programs being reversed could be devastating for the renewable energy industry, he doesn't believe ALEC will get far. "You can find someone to introduce a bill, but that doesn't mean you can find someone to pass it," he said.

For its part, ALEC says interest in repealing the state programs stems from the lawmakers themselves, not the conservative coalition as a whole.

ALEC, which does not disclose its membership or sources of funding, is simply a "platform" where lawmakers repeatedly raise the concern that consumers should not be forced to pay for politically backed energy sources like solar and wind through mandates, said Todd Wynn, who directs ALEC's energy, environment and agriculture task force.

"The characterization of this issue in particular is often misleading," Wynn said. "I think that, often, our opposition and advocates of renewables energy think that ALEC is opposed to renewables, when we're not."

Some renewable energy companies and firms that manufacture goods needed to produce renewable energy belong to ALEC and don't leave the group -- even if they disagree with some policies -- because they want to discuss hot-button issues, he added.

ALEC expects a handful of states to introduce bills to repeal RPS programs in February and March and full repeals to be implemented in 2014, Wynn said.

"Members are driving the debate. ... Our state legislators have taken up the torch on these issues," he said. "But ALEC itself isn't driving an energy mandate repeal campaign."

'Dream come true'

Tracking ALEC's connection to state lawmakers and particular legislation has become more difficult because the group is increasingly savvy about how it reaches out to state legislators, and model bills don't always match measures that are introduced, said Connor Gibson, a researcher at Greenpeace.

For now, green groups are left checking state legislators' membership in ALEC and speaking engagements, and waiting for bills to be introduced.

Such is the case in North Carolina, where state Rep. Mike Hager (R), a member of ALEC, is poised to introduce a bill next month that would repeal the state's RPS program. North Carolina currently requires utilities to procure 12 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2021.

Hager, a former engineer for Charlotte-based Duke Energy, said during an interview today that ALEC isn't helping him write his legislation. Instead, Hager said he's a free-market, conservative Republican who doesn't believe the United States should subsidize renewable energy when large quantities of cheap coal, gas and oil exist. He added that he does his own research.

"It's just the central philosophy of the government subsidizing the industry," Hager said. "It's a logic issue."

Duke Energy, a member of ALEC and large player in North Carolina, is trying to sidestep the debate.

Duke spokesman Dave Scanzoni said the utility hasn't taken a formal position on the bill, and the decision to implement or repeal renewable portfolio standards should be "state specific."

"Though we're a member of ALEC, we don't always agree with every issue that the organization or any other organization of which we're a member takes," he said, adding that Duke is a member of a wide array of liberal and conservative groups.

But a spokesman for Duke told the Charlotte Business Journal last May that the utility indeed opposes Hager's bill and helped craft North Carolina's RPS. Duke also opposes ALEC's position to curb U.S. EPA's ability to regulate carbon emissions and coal ash storage and set standards for mercury emissions, the spokesman said.

Gibson said ALEC's push to repeal state renewable programs puts Duke in an awkward position.

"They're still paying ALEC to do work that they say they don't support," he said. "This particular bill is attacking a law that Duke helped create."

Green groups are suspicious that similar efforts could be under way in Virginia, Ohio, Kansas, Arizona, Missouri and Wisconsin. All are states that, like North Carolina, have Republican majorities in the legislature (control of the state Senate in Virginia is split, though a Republican lieutenant governor can break tie votes). Of those states, only Missouri has a Democratic governor.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a GOP gubernatorial candidate, is backing two bipartisan pieces of legislation to eliminate incentives that utilities receive for complying with the state's voluntary RPS program.

Cuccinelli's office said the bills would remove the "extra" payments that customers must make while ensuring that the state's utilities generate 15 percent of their power from renewables by 2025.

"In short, Virginians can expect to have the same amount of renewable electricity as they would have had under the current law, but will pay less for it," said Caroline Gibson, a spokeswoman for Cuccinelli.

But Beth Kemler, director of Virginia's Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said that the legislation is a "de facto repeal" of the state's RPS program and that Cuccinelli has been known to speak at ALEC events.

"We certainly can't draw any straight lines from ALEC to this bill, but ... we can draw a straight line from ALEC to Cuccinelli -- he has spoken at their events," Kemler said. "We basically think of the [bill] as a very smart backhanded way to get rid of the RPS."

Cuccinelli's office said today that the attorney general is not an ALEC member.

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