Clean-energy companies may benefit from a new political-action committee trying to bridge a policy divide that is playing out in ads featuring Solyndra LLC’s collapse and finger-pointing over high gasoline costs.
The Accelerating Energy Leadership, or Accel, PAC will help candidates who support “diversifying American energy sources,” which includes solar and wind power, biomass, nuclear and natural gas, according to an invitation to its inaugural event last month.
The group stresses bipartisanship. The first recipient was Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican who backs renewable energy. The second was Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who supports the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed $7.6 billion project to carry crude oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.
“We want to avoid the catch words -- clean energy, green energy -- that set people off in the wrong way,” said Tim Greeff, the Washington-based PAC’s treasurer. “The political rhetoric is starting to dictate and override any pragmatic solutions.”
Accel raised more than $25,000 at the March 7 fundraiser, which was held a few blocks from the Capitol. Venture capitalists, utility executives, and representatives from the wind, solar, and biofuels industries attended, Greeff said. Future events are planned in New York and San Francisco, he said.
While the group will support candidates who embrace an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, its success could pay dividends for clean-energy businesses in particular that are outspent in Washington by fossil-fuel rivals such as Koch Industries Inc. in Wichita, Kansas, a holding company with refining and chemical subsidiaries.
The American Wind Energy Association, whose members include Iberdrola SA (IBE) of Bilbao, Spain, gave $56,200 to members of both parties since last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that analyzes campaign and lobbying expenditures.
Koch’s political action committee gave more than $872,000 to candidates in 2011 and so far in 2012, almost all to Republicans, according to the center. Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM:US), the largest U.S. oil company, gave more than $992,000 through its political action committee, mostly to Republican candidates, in that period.
Alternative-energy companies -- such as SunPower Corp. (SPWR:US) in San Jose, California, and BrightSource Energy Inc. (BRSE:US), in Oakland, California -- also spend less on lobbying, about $28 million in 2011 compared with $148 million by oil and gas companies, according to data compiled by the center and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Energy Mix Debate
Accel is stepping into a debate marked by growing disagreements over how to shape the U.S. energy mix after President Barack Obama included tens of billions of dollars in clean energy and conservation programs in his 2009 economic stimulus.
Last week, Obama said Republicans were part of the “flat- earth society” for opposing incentives for wind and solar development as they defend $40 billion in what he said were unneeded tax breaks for oil companies.
This week, his campaign released a political ad that noted both oil production and renewable energy generation were up during Obama’s administration.
That ad was a response to a spot from the American Energy Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group that says it supports free market policies, criticizing Obama for rejecting the TransCanada Corp. (TRP)’s Keystone pipeline while supporting Solyndra, which filed for bankruptcy protection two years after winning a $535 million U.S. loan guarantee.
Republicans say Obama practiced “crony capitalism” for backing the Fremont, California solar-panel maker, which drew investment from one of his campaign fundraisers. The Energy Department has said the guarantee was awarded on the merits of the company’s application.
The party split on energy used to be less pronounced, according to Dan Tate, a lobbyist with Washington-based Capitol Solutions whose clients include Tokyo-based Honda Motor Co. (7267) and Generators for Clean Air, a coalition of utilities that includes Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power Co. (AEP:US)
“Energy was oil-and-gas-producer states versus consumer states,” Tate, a former aide in President Bill Clinton’s administration, said in an e-mail. “Renewables had a coastal constituency and few detractors because they were such a small percentage of energy. Now even these regional issues have taken on a partisan sheen.”
That makes it “extraordinarily difficult to find agreement” on energy, he said.
Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican whose northwestern Iowa district includes farmers paid to have turbines on their land, said Solyndra’s failure has made it “hard for conservatives” to be “supportive of renewable energy.”
“There is less room to come together in the middle,” with Democrats opposing energy sources that they say contribute to climate change, he said.
While King supports extending tax breaks benefiting wind producers set to expire this year, Republicans led by Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas are calling for an end to energy subsidies.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has said the White House hasn’t backed up assertions that a Treasury grant program for renewable energy had created thousands of jobs. He called the grants, which Obama is seeking to revive after their expiration last year, a “Solyndra-style” stimulus program.
Solyndra criticism “shows how fragile the support for really going for advanced energy is from a political standpoint,” Accel’s Greeff said.
To compensate, advocates for clean energy need to align themselves with established energy companies to rebuild support, he said.
“The over-politicization in the energy debate puts renewable energy on one side and traditional sources like natural gas and nuclear on the other,” Greeff said. “To choose between the two is just silly.”
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