Begley: 2011 a Surprise Year for Renewables?

Even before their midterm debacle, Democrats couldn’t pass an energy-climate bill worth the name. Prospects for legislation to free the country from dependence on petro-dictators—and put it on a path to a renewable energy-based economy—would seem, therefore, about as likely as John Boehner introducing a $700 billion stimulus bill. So why are renewable-energy advocates smiling?

Because a Republican wave swept the heartland. This region—Texas, Oklahoma, and on up to the Dakotas—is to wind power what Nebraska is to corn. The investment tax credit for building wind and other renewable installations expires Dec. 31. Once it does, those projects will come to a halt, and thousands of people who are employed in building them will be out of work. Those workers, of course, are the constituents of newly elected officials, the companies behind the projects are crucial economic engines in the districts and states of those legislators, and both are going to give their reps an earful if the projects don’t resume.

So goes the thinking of experts like Michael Eckhart, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy. “There are enough Republicans in big wind-power states that they’ll feel a direct economic impact” if those projects don’t continue, he says. His other cause of optimism: a perfect partisan storm. With the GOP’s big majority in the House, any legislation it moves will be received by the Senate as a Republican bill, giving the GOP minority there an incentive to vote in favor. Democrats have traditionally supported renewables—and might be eager enough to pass legislation, even if they have to hold their collective noses for GOP-favored add-ons like funding for (oxymoronic) clean coal.

An added incentive: energy prices took a hit in the recession but are starting to rise, says Steve Morgan, former CEO and chairman of Jersey Central Power & Light, who is now CEO of American Clean Energy, a solar company. So the economics of renewables will improve. That, not climate change, will drive support in 2011. Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress counts 35 of the next Congress’s 46 GOP senators as having publicly questioned the science of global warming (as have 11 of 13 freshmen); so do 125 of the 240 Republicans elected to the House. Freedom from the petro-dictators may yet happen, just when we least expect it.

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