Politics of Wind and the Election

on September 24, 2012 at 3:30 PM

During this year’s presidential campaign, the renewable energy industry and the tax credits that support it have become a hot political topic.

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney caused a ripple of anxiety in the US wind industry when he said he would not extend the Production Tax Credit that has helped grow the wind industry to 50GW of installed capacity.

Previous comments in March this year descended into farce when Romney praised the coal and oil industries at a rally in Zanesville, Ohio, while adding: “We all like wind and solar, but you can’t drive a car with a windmill on it.”

But renewable energy enjoys broad support in the US where people expect the government to support emerging clean power technologies and the 2012 Global Consumer Wind Study would make useful reading for both candidates. Read more about the study here.

Americans more concerned about the state of the economy than the threat of climate change, that much is certain from the results of the GCWS: 40% of respondents ranked climate change in the lowest category as a threat facing the world and 51% ranked the economic recession in the highest category.

Last month, President Barack Obama hit the campaign trail in Iowa, where 20% of the state’s electricity comes from wind, and berated Romney for calling wind energy “imaginary”.

Obama told the crowd in Oskaloosa: “America now has enough wind turbines installed to generate enough electricity from wind to power nearly 13 million homes with clean energy. That’s how we leave something better for the next generation. That’s worth fighting for. That’s what’s at stake right now.

“So I want to stop giving $4 billion in subsidies that are going to oil companies that are making huge profits and have been subsidized for 100 years and let’s keep on investing in the new homegrown energy that’s creating jobs right here in Iowa. That’s the difference in this election.”

Despite Romney’s disparaging remarks about President Barack Obama’s attempts to mitigate climate change at the Republican National Convention in early September, Americans appear very attuned to the impact the electric power industry has on the environment.

When asked to what extent does the electric utility industry cause human-action induced climate changes, 32% of GCWS respondents answered to a certain degree and 39% answered to a high or very high degree.

The overwhelming majority (67%) of respondents said that they would prefer to have their electricity sources supplied by renewables, versus 9% for fossil fuels and 8% for nuclear.

78% of respondents said that they would prefer to see renewables such as wind, solar, hydro, biomass and geothermal developed over the next five years.

Concerns about energy independence fuel much of this support for renewables: 79% of respondents expressed moderate to high concerns about dependence on fossil fuel imports.

Although “drill baby drill” was the mantra for Republicans presidents past, Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy appears to be having an impact.

US dependence on foreign petroleum imports has declined since peaking in 2005. Last year, the United States relied on imports for 45% of the petroleum consumed in 2011 – 29% came from Canada and 14% from Saudi Arabia. But the US Energy Information Agency projects that US domestic crude oil production will reach its highest level of production since 1993.

But Obama administration energy policy appears to make a clear distinction between fuels for transportation and those that are more acceptable for electric power generation as Environmental Protection Agency regulations are predicted to require the retirement of 27 GW of coal fired generation over the next five years.

This appears to fit with the public’s aspirations for energy generation: 49% said they wanted to see reduced development of fossil fuels despite the fact that the US holds the world’s largest estimated recoverable reserves of coal.

Only 12% said they wanted development of fossil fuel energy sources increased. When given only a choice of fossil fuels, only 20% said they would prefer energy sourced from coal, versus 57% for natural gas.

Romney has campaigned the role of reduced government in “picking winners” in the energy industry. Indeed, the private sector is already heavily involved in the development of the wind sector. More than $14 billion was invested in wind power project installations in 2011, for a cumulative investment total of $95 billion since the beginning of the 1980s.

But the public still expects government to show leadership in the development of the renewable industry. When asked to what extent national government should play a lead role in the adoption of renewable energy, 45% responded “very high or high”. And despite the state-regulated structure of the US energy industry, half that many respondents (22%) said that local government should be involved in the adoption of renewables.

Renewable energy is likely to continue to be a political football during the presidential election campaign, but with wide public support for wind energy as suggested by GCWS data, whoever ends up in the White House after November is likely to be friendlier to wind than the Republican’s campaign suggest.

GWCS give us some indications of public sentiment on where US energy policy should be heading, but we will have to wait instead for the outcome of a much larger poll in November to determine whether Romney is running against the wind.

This piece appears on Breaking Energy as part of the Energy Transparency series in partnership with Vestas.