Q&A: ALEC’s new tactics to weaken renewable laws

This Q&A originally appeared in Midwest Energy News. 

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ALEC40Though bills meant to revoke or undercut renewable standards in numerous states failed last session, clean energy advocates say the model Market Power Renewables Act and the Renewable Energy Credit Act proposed by ALEC’s energy task force during the conference pose a fresh threat.

The Market Power Renewables Act argues for a “voluntary market” that would allow people to invest in renewable energy if they choose without instituting mandates, and it claims that such an approach could lead to more renewable energy development overall.

The Renewable Energy Credit Act would expand the types of energy that would count toward credits. It would also remove caps on the proportion of an RPS that can be met through credits – a provision now enshrined in many states’ laws. And it would also allow the renewable standard’s full term – for example through 2025 – to be met in advance by bulk purchases of credits to meet future requirements.

The ALEC conference also included presentations by the American Petroleum Institute on local hydraulic fracturing bans; offshore energy as “good sense and good cents”; nuclear energy’s role in baseload electricity production; and the U.S. EPA’s “assault on state sovereignty,” hosted by a representative of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Gabriel Elsner, director of the pro-clean energy watchdog Checks and Balances Project, was among the advocates banned from ALEC’s meeting in Oklahoma City in May. Elsner was in Chicago for the recent conference, in an effort to learn more about state legislators’ and corporate executives’ ties with ALEC. The Checks and Balances Project also collaborated with the Center for Media and Democracy and Greenpeace to publicize ALEC’s confidential agenda and proposed model bills.

Midwest Energy News spoke with Elsner during his visit.

Midwest Energy News: Given that ALEC was unable to pass its bills last year, how serious a threat do these model bills pose to RPS standards and to renewable energy development as a whole?

Elsner: ALEC completely failed in 2013 to weaken or eliminate RPS laws. We’ve seen that because there’s bipartisan support for clean energy. Businesses and communities are seeing local economic development and job creation because of these laws.

ALEC’s new model legislation is a stealth attack on RPS’s. They are framed in a way that makes them seem pro-clean energy, but would open up RPS’s to allow sources of electricity – from large hydropower to landfill gas — to be included in state laws that are supposed to incentivize clean energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal. The net effect would be reduced incentives for local, clean energy development in states that adopted this new bill.

ALEC’s proposed “Market-Power Renewables Act” doesn’t mention hydropower or landfill gas – how do you figure it would allow such energy to be counted toward RPS compliance?

This bill as written would open up the market to the different registries that regulate renewable energy credits. For example, in Kansas, your renewable energy credits are regulated by a different entity than in California. But if Kansas passes this law, they could buy RECs from hydropower plants in California or Oregon to fulfill the entire RPS.

That’s already allowed in some states, how would this law be different?

I looked at the regional registries for RECs listed in the model bill. REC registries define renewable energy differently – some include hydropower plants as large as hundreds of megawatts. Others include landfills gas and biomass projects.

ALEC’s new model bills would create a lowest common denominator that would weaken the traditional RPS’s by allowing out-of-state RECs to fulfill the entire RPS. If building a wind turbine in Kansas cost a dollar and five cents but you could go out and buy an REC for a dollar from a hydropower plant in Maine, the utilities would go out and buy a credit and not build the local clean energy project. It would eliminate the economic benefit and jobs in the state.

Palmer-House-Phillip-CantorWhat exactly is an ALEC model bill and where does it go from here?

The bills were discussed by the ALEC Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force on Friday and voted on by a combination of corporate representatives like AEP and Exxon Mobil and legislators who sit on the task force. Once it passes the task force, a bill goes to the executive board of ALEC. [If the board approves,] it becomes a model bill and is sent out to ALEC legislators across the country.

Who are ALEC legislators?

ALEC doesn’t publish a list of which legislators are members. The Center for Media and Democracy has compiled a list at ALECExposed.org. Right now, we know that about 25 percent of all state legislators are members of ALEC. Legislators who attacked RPS’s last year were in Chicago for the conference.

At the conference ALEC also discussed a model resolution supporting grid modernization. This would appear to put ALEC on the same page as clean energy groups. Is their support really a way to introduce curbs on improving the grid or promoting renewables on the grid?

It would be great if utilities were for grid modernization because it could lead to more clean energy development, smart meters, net metering. But more likely is that members of the ALEC energy task force are supporting grid modernization to maximize the benefits to the utilities at the expense of ordinary consumers.

It’s also a model resolution – not model legislation – so it lacks any details on what pieces of grid modernization they would actually support. The model resolution supports cost recovery by utilities, but would they support the increased use of smart meters and net metering?

If model bills don’t benefit the utilities and other fossil fuel interests funding ALEC, it’s probably not going to pass the task force.

ALEC calls for the possibility of buying renewable energy credits from businesses and private citizens. Might this in a sense further the goal of distributed energy and create incentives for people or businesses to generate their own renewable energy?

In theory this could lead to increased use of clean energy by opening up a voluntary market for RECs. But it’s more likely that opening the RPS to large existing hydro and other sources of electricity would water down the market and undermine in-state clean energy development.

It’s important to point out that RPS’s are already driving clean energy investment. In Kansas alone, it resulted in $3 billion of private sector investment in clean energy last year. These policies are working – if the members of ALEC really want to support clean energy they should work to increase the RPS standards.

The ALEC energy task force also passed a resolution to oppose a carbon tax. How much political significance does this have, especially given that ALEC works on the state level, and a carbon tax would be federal?

[The resolution] is a problem because it is a message to our national representatives in Congress. If state legislatures start passing resolutions against a carbon tax, it would send a strong message to people in Washington, D.C. that a carbon tax is not politically feasible.

What do groups hope to accomplish by publicizing ALEC’s agenda and model bills?

Transparency is always a good thing. ALEC for far too long has operated behind closed doors – lobbying our state legislators on behalf of their corporate members. The Checks and Balances Project is trying to bring accountability to that process by showing the public that major fossil fuel interests are working to impact our energy policy through ALEC.

Have these efforts had an impact already, such as with the failure of the bills in the past year?

I think that they have certainly mobilized people who are in favor of clean energy. ALEC’s attacks on clean energy mobilized businesses and other allies to defend these important policies. I think these attacks on something as popular as clean energy is also having an impact on ALEC itself, with many corporations deciding to leave ALEC because of the controversy surrounding the organization.

In regards to ALEC’s energy work, it’s no surprise that they are launching the next attack on clean energy policies. ALEC is a front group representing major fossil fuel interests, that see the growth of the clean energy industry as a long-term competitive threat.

Fossil Fuel Interests Continue Attacks on Clean Energy Policies

This response was originally posted at National Journal’s Energy Insiders blog, which asked energy experts this week, “How Bright Is Renewable Energy’s Future?”

The outlook for clean energy remains strong because smart investments like state Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) are combining with technological innovation to produce tremendous growth for the industry and tens of thousands of good-paying American jobs. These policies have successfully stood up to forceful attacks from entrenched fossil fuel interests in more than a dozen states in the past year. Washington should take note that the public supports and wants more energy from renewable sources.

At the state level, fossil fuel interests have worked through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to weaken or eliminate RPS, because the clean energy industry poses a competitive threat to their market share. State renewable energy standards are projected to add enough new renewable power capacity by 2025 to power 47 million homes.

So, it’s no surprise that fossil fuel interests like American Electric Power, Peabody Coal, ExxonMobil and others are working to rollback renewable energy laws. These corporations that sell electricity produced from coal and natural gas are in direct competition with electricity generated from clean energy sources. This year, ALEC members and fossil fuel-funded front groups worked to rollback RPS laws in at least 13 states. But, a bipartisan coalition of business leaders, farmers and clean energy advocates stopped them in their tracks. Of all the bills proposed by ALEC members to weaken or eliminate RPS, 0 out of 13 passed, including in key target states like Kansas, Missouri and North Carolina.

Despite failing completely in 2013, ALEC’s energy task force met last week to propose new model bills that would effectively gut RPS laws by allowing large, existing hydro and landfill gas and other electricity sources from out-of-state to count towards the Renewable Portfolio Standards. The Market-Power Renewables Act and the Renewable Energy Credit Act would let utilities meet the clean energy standards by purchasing credits from out-of-state companies instead of generating or buying their own clean energy. In effect, the new model bills would eliminate incentives for in-state clean energy investment that are creating jobs and economic opportunities. Since their inception 10 years ago, RPS laws have leveraged over $100 billion in private sector investment in clean energy in 29 states.

ALEC and fossil fuel-front groups are lobbying our state representatives and spreading disinformation behind closed doors to attack pro-clean energy laws. With energy policy mostly stalled at the federal level, fossil fuel-funded attacks on the state level will continue and likely ramp up in the future, posing a major threat to the clean energy industry and the policies that support its growth.

ALEC’s Most Wanted: Exposing a front group for fossil fuel interests (and other corporations)

ALEC Most WantedThe Center for Media and Democracy’s (CMD) Brendan Fischer and Nick Surgey uncovered an internal document from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) at the controversial organization’s meeting last week in Oklahoma City. The document entitled “OKC anti-ALEC photos” featured the headshots of eight reporters and public interest advocates that have written about ALEC or been critical of ALEC’s activities (as a front group working on behalf of its corporate membership).

CMD’s Surgey attempted to attend the keynote address by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, which was billed as open to the press. After registering for press credentials at the ALEC registration desk, Mr. Surgey ascended the escalator towards the keynote speech, but was confronted by ALEC staff members and then approached by a uniformed Oklahoma City police officer.

Mr. Fischer and Surgey recount the exchange in which Surgey had his credentials revoked and was ejected from the ALEC meeting.  From PR Watch:

“I need those credentials,” the officer said.

“I registered,” Surgey replied.

“No, you didn’t,” said a female ALEC staffer, who was accompanying the officer.

“I did, downstairs,” he said.

“It was… you shouldn’t have been able to.”

The reason Surgey shouldn’t have been allowed to register, according to the ALEC staffer: “Because we know who you are.

Surgey asked the ALEC staffer for her name as she asserted that he had to leave:

Can I ask your name?” Surgey asked the ALEC staffer who challenged his press credentials.

“Erm, why?” she replied.

“Is there any reason you wouldn’t want to tell me your name?”

“Yeah, because I know who you are,” she said.

The staffer — whose organization had developed talking points claiming to support the First Amendment, which protects a free and vibrant press — added: “Because you’re going to write an article about it.”

Less than 10 minutes after registering as press, Surgey had his credentials revoked and was ejected from the ALEC meeting by a police officer. As he was escorted away, the ALEC staffer repeated: “We know exactly who you are.”

As Director of the Checks & Balances Project, I was one of the eight people featured on the “ALEC Most Wanted” document alongside other reporters and public interest advocates who have criticized ALEC’s efforts to influence state legislators on behalf of special interests.  Fischer and Surgey write:

The page featured pictures and names of eight people, four of whom work with CMD, including Surgey, CMD’s general counsel Brendan Fischer and its Executive Director Lisa Graves, as well as CMD contributor Beau Hodai.

It is not known whether the photo array of people who have reported on or criticized ALEC was distributed to ALEC members or shared with Oklahoma City law enforcement.

Other targets on the document included The Nation‘s Lee Fang, who has written articles critical of ALEC, and Sabrina Stevens, an education activist who spoke out in an ALEC task force meeting last November. Also featured were Calvin Sloan of People for the American Way and Gabe Elsner of Checks and Balances Project, both of whom are ALEC detractors.

The name of ALEC Events Director Sarah McManamon was in the top corner, indicating the document was printed from her Google account.

ALEC's_Most_Wanted OriginalAs Fischer and Surgey point out, ALEC claims to support the freedom of the press. But in practice, the organization seems reluctant to provide transparency and access required for a free press to be functional.   Instead, “ALEC assembled a dossier of disfavored reporters and activists,” and “kicked reporters out of its conference who might write unfavorable stories…”

ALEC’s sensitivity to transparency shows that the accountability work by C&BP, CMD, People for the American Way and others is working. A free society can’t work unless there is some check on the concentration of power. Now, more than ever, society needs more of the most powerful check on concentrations of power – public scrutiny. Most recently, C&BP has worked to expose ALEC’s efforts to eliminate clean energy laws in states across the country and bring to light that these attacks are being driven by powerful special interests.

ALEC exemplifies how fossil fuel corporations and other special interests have an oversized influence in our public process. And, C&BP is proud to be part of the effort to expose ALEC, fossil fuel-funded front groups and other fossil fuel interests using their power and resources to attack clean energy policies — even if it lands us on ALEC’s Most Wanted list.

ALEC Attacks Clean Energy Standards: Ohio & Virginia

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Over the past couple weeks, fossil fuel interests and their allies have ramped up attacks on clean energy on the state level. As the Washington Post reported in November, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a fossil fuel-funded advocacy group, has made it a priority to eliminate clean energy standards across the country.

From the East Coast to the Southwest, ALEC members, alumni and operatives are moving full steam ahead to eliminate clean energy projects and the policies that support them.  However, not all of these attacks are coming from ALEC members sitting in state legislatures.  In Ohio and Virginia, former ALEC legislators, now in other positions, are driving anti-clean energy attacks. Below is part one of our series on former ALEC legislators spearheading fossil fuel-funded attacks on the clean energy industry.

 VIRGINIA

Two weeks ago, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a former ALEC legislator, struck an agreement with Dominion, one of the largest electric utilities in the U.S., to support legislation effectively eliminating the state’s voluntary clean energy standard. According to the Associated Press, under the agreement, the power companies would no longer have the same financial incentives for using sources of renewable energy in Virginia. Without a legally-binding clean energy standard, killing the financial incentives of the law would stop big utilities from investing in new sources of energy, especially when they can keep profiting off of old coal-fired power plants.

So why is the Attorney General Cuccinelli working to stop clean energy in Virginia? There’s one thing that might show his hand. Attorney General Cuccinelli is running for Governor of Virginia in the 2013 election, and has received over $100,000 from fossil fuel energy interests for his campaign (and over $400,000 from dirty energy interests since 2001) including:

  • $50,000 from David H. Koch, co-owner of Koch Industries, a major fossil fuel conglomerate.
  • $25,000 from Consol Energy, a coal and natural gas producer.
  • $10,000 from Alpha Natural Resources, a coal mining and processing company.
  • $10,000 from Appalachian Power, a subsidiary of American Electric Power, one of the largest electric utility companies.
  • $10,000 from Dominion, one of the largest electric utility companies.
  • $10,000 from Koch Industries, a major fossil fuel conglomerate.

The Attorney General’s office claims that he sought to eliminate the standard because it allowed utilities to buy renewable energy certificates from existing facilities rather than build new clean energy in the state of Virginia. Dominion charged ratepayers $77 million as part of the clean energy law, without building a single clean energy project in the state.

Ken Cuccinelli - Soiree

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli at an event sponsored by the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity.

But, Mike Tidwell, of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), which has worked with lawmakers to propose several bills to improve the incentive program, said that, “The standard is flawed; but there’s a clear way to fix that.” CCAN is working with Delegate Alfonso Lopez to propose a solution that would require Dominion to invest in wind and solar projects in Virginia in order to qualify for financial incentives.

But instead of trying to fix the renewable energy standard, Mr. Cuccinelli is advocating for the elimination of clean energy incentives while also raking in over $100,000 dollars from fossil fuel interests for his gubernatorial campaign. This clear conflict of interest is compounded by the fact that Mr. Cuccinelli was a member of ALEC, which has publicly stated eliminating clean energy laws as one of its goals for 2013. And, it is Mr. Cuccinelli’s fossil fuel donors, most of which are corporate members of ALEC, that stand to profit from killing clean energy laws and slowing the growth of the clean energy economy.

Instead of fighting for Virginia families and small businesses, it appears that Mr. Cuccinnelli is more concerned with the interests of his big, fossil fuel donors. It’s probably a good indication of how he’ll run the state from the governor’s mansion.

OHIO

In Ohio, no legislation has been proposed to rollback the state’s “Alternative Energy Resource Standard,” yet. But three weeks ago, former ALEC legislator Todd Snitchler, now Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), and two other commissioners, decided to squash a solar power plant proposed by American Electric Power (AEP) – a move that seems to correlate with ALEC’s agenda to stop the growth of the clean energy market.

AEP planned to build the Turning Point solar power plant, a 50 MW solar power plant comprised of panels from a factory in Ohio. The company planned this project to comply with the requirements of the renewable energy standard according to the PUCO opinion and order. Ohio’s clean energy law calls for 12.5% of the state’s electricity to come from renewable energy resources by 2025.

Todd Snitchler, Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, with Governor John Kasich. Both politicians are ALEC alumni.

Todd Snitchler, Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, with Governor John Kasich. Both politicians are ALEC alumni.

One of the primary opponents arguing against the solar plant in front of the PUCO was FirstEnergy Solutions, an electric utility (that generates 72% of its electricity from fossil fuels) and a major donor to Governor John Kasich, another ALEC alumnus.  Gov. Kasich received over $600,000 from oil, gas and mining interests for his 2010 election campaign and in early 2011, Gov. Kasich appointed Mr. Snitchler to chair the PUCO.

Mr. Snitchler and the two other Republican commissioners voting to stop the Turning Point solar plant disregarded Public Utilities Commission of Ohio staff experts who stated that the project was necessary to comply with the state’s renewable energy standard.

Mr. Snitchler’s Twitter traffic affirms his ideological disdain for clean energy. He consistently attacked clean energy technology and the legitimacy of climate science (ignoring the Pope, United States Military, and every national academy of science in the world) according to a Columbus Dispatch analysis of his twitter traffic over the past year.

With anti-clean energy ALEC alumni in powerful positions in Ohio, pro-clean energy advocates must work to stop attempted rollbacks of the state’s clean energy standard in the state legislature or face a grim future in the Buckeye state.