Media pundits and conservative politicians increasingly bemoan the so-called “war on coal,” which seems to encompass any attempt to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector or advance renewable energy deployment. While I feel it is misleading and manipulative to use the word “war” in this context, the phrase invokes a powerful emotional response, and thus receives a fair amount of air time. It also overshadows a much more deliberate campaign being waged against renewable energy in many parts of the country, which threatens to reverse recent legal and policy advancements in the electricity arena.
Last month, the Kansas legislature rejected a bill that would have dramatically weakened the state’s renewable portfolio standards, or RPS, which requires Kansas electric utilities to obtain at least 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. The proposed bill, which would have revised the RPS to max out the renewable energy standard at 15% by 2016, was rejected by the Kansas House of Representatives by three votes.
This bill was one of numerous legislative efforts to weaken the Kansas RPS over the past two years, and likely will not be the last. These efforts to roll back the state’s renewable energy goals have not been raised at the behest of Kansas citizens, or even Kansas businesses, save for one. According to Kansas State Representative Scott Schwab, Koch Industries, a Wichita-based multinational corporation with extensive oil and natural gas interests, is responsible for the legislative attempts to weaken or repeal the RPS. Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch also fund the Kansas Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, and Schwab, a five-term republican representative, claims that the group recently refused to endorse him because he opposed weakening the state’s RPS. The Chamber of Commerce also allegedly withdrew support for three other Republican incumbents for their failure to support the RPS bill.
Ohio is another battleground in the fight against renewable portfolio standards. On June 13, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed S.B. 310, a bill that freezes the state’s RPS and energy efficiency standards for two years, making Ohio the first state in the country to roll back these standards. On June 23, Governor Kasich signed a separate bill that will likely halt wind energy development in the state. H.B. 483 mandates that commercial wind turbines be set back at least 1,125 feet from any property line. The new setback requirement will drastically reduce the number of turbines that can be installed at a single location, making commercial wind development uneconomical in most locations.
Thanks to Kansas’s RPS, a robust wind industry has emerged in the state, creating 13,000 new jobs and attracting more than $7 billion in investments. In Ohio, the state’s energy efficiency standards have saved consumers more than $1 billion in energy costs, and the RPS has attracted more than $1 billion in renewable energy investments Yet FirstEnergy Corp., an Akron electric utility, wrongly claimed the RPS and energy efficiency standard freeze would benefit consumers and create jobs.
At the heart of this issue lies a deeper debate with potentially profound social, economic, and environmental significance. Should we, as a society, continue to prop up polluting fossil fuel-based electricity generation in exchange for lower short-term electricity rates, or should we instead aim to reduce long-term societal costs resulting from fossil fuel emissions—including costs associated with environmental degradation, human health impacts, and climate change—and invest in a clean renewable energy system? If we choose the latter option, there will be significant economic impacts in the short-term, with economic losses for the fossil fuel industry and economic growth for the renewable energy industry. This type of economic transition isn’t unprecedented; over the last century we’ve witnessed the transition from the telegraph to the smart phone and the printing press to the 3D printer. It’s perhaps more surprising that we’ve used the same general technology to generate electricity for over 100 years.
We now have the technology to generate electricity from the sun and the wind, yet we continue to level entire mountains to obtain polluting, non-renewable fossil fuels. And when fossil fuel-funded politicians rant about the “war on coal,” they promote the battle against renewable energy. Unfortunately, it seems this battle will continue until we build the political will to transition to a modern, 21st century electrical system.
For more information on the Kansas RPS controversy, click here.
For information on Kansas’s wind industry, click here.