Clean Energy vs. the Environment: A Cautionary Tale

May 14, 2018

The “canary in a coal mine” is a metaphor originating from the time when caged birds were carried into the mines as an early warning system; the canary would die before methane, and carbon gases reached levels hazardous to humans.

Global warming is certainly not our lead talking point.—- Abigail Ross Hopper/CEO the Solar Energy Industries Association

The tension running through all levels of American society these days is palpable. An age of identity politics—groups of every ilk, are pulling back behind their defining walls. Traditional alliances are being broken, and new ones are slow to form. Dealmaking has taken on the airs of a zero-sum game in which there can only be one winner.

It all has me wondering if we shouldn’t consider changing the nation’s name. The word United somehow seems terribly out of place.

This may be another instance when Trump understands the mood of the public—or at least a sizable segment of it—better than other politicians and the pundits. I’ve always assumed Trump chose to use the mantra of make AMERICA great again–rather than Make the United States of America Great Again–because it didn’t fit neatly on a baseball cap. Now, I’m not so sure. He could have used USA and given the rest of the phrase a bit more breathing room.

Donald John appears content to serve only 40 percent of the population; and, the 40 percent seems content to let him. Trump has shown little inclination to unite the country. In anticipation of the November mid-term elections, he directs his message only to his core supporters, putting the rest of the nation on notice that he and his followers are coming for them.

In consort with the Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, Trump and company are assaulting the climate and clean energy sectors. Almost all environmental regulations that came into force during the Obama administration have either been rescinded, suspended or are awaiting a final court decision. The regulations include the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the Waters of the US (WOTUS), average corporate fuel efficiencies (CAFE), greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas exploration and extraction on federal lands, and more.

Trump isolated the US from the global community of nations when he pulled the country out of the Paris climate accord. America’s government now stands alone in its failure to join the climate change battle. To make sure our closest allies understood his contempt of climate-science the President of some of the people sent members of his administration to the UN’s 2017 climate conference in Bonn, Germany to peddle American coal to nations already choking on greenhouse gas emissions.

Clean energy technologies have fared little better under the Trump regime. Don John’s proposed fiscal year 2018 and 2019 budgets for solar, wind and other climate-friendly technologies gutted federal programs at the Department of Energy and elsewhere. Had it not been for Congressional gridlock the White House would have gotten its wish.

Making good on his promise to re-balance trade relations with China and other Asian nations, Trump imposed import tariffs on the photovoltaic cells most US solar companies use in their systems. For a president and constituency fond of fossil fuels imposition of the tariff offered a double bonus.

The Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) estimates the tariff will result in the loss of 23,000 solar jobs in 2018. Because the import tax is unlikely to revive US manufacture of solar panels those jobs will not be made up elsewhere. The tariff works not only to make Chinese components more expensive; it makes solar appear less competitive with coal and natural gas.

To suggest Trump is the source of the current hyper-partisanship is to give credit where none is due. He is, however, an accelerant of the inter and intra-party conflicts occurring at the extremes of both political organizations.

There’s no denying the tension and stress infecting our political system. The impact Trump and company are having on federal clean energy and climate policies goes beyond regulatory rescissions and under-funded and mismanaged programs. Forced to make hard choices the ties that have bound the clean energy and environmental communities are fraying.

A recent Reuters article by Nichola Groom, Clean energy sector swings Republican with U.S. campaign donations, offers evidence of conflicts brewing between the clean energy and environmental communities. According to the article, political action committees (PACs) representing solar and wind companies have contributed a combined total of around $400,000 to 2018 Congressional candidates or their PACs. Of the total, $247,000 went to Republicans, $139,300 to Democrats, and $7,500 to independents.[i]

Reuters reported that recipients of AWEA and SEIA contributions included Congressmen McCarthy (R-CA), Brady (R-TX), Curbelo (R-FL), Holding (R-NC), and Reed (R-NY). Senator Heller (R-NV) received $15,000 from solar and wind interests. Heller is considered the most endangered Senate incumbent, as he is the only senator running for re-election in a state won by Hillary Clinton. Although a supporter of clean energy, Heller is given a “0 out of 100” score by the League of Conservation Voters for the votes he has cast on environmental matters in 2017 and a lifetime score of 11 percent.

McCarthy is currently the majority leader in the House and has Ryan’s support to sit next in the Speaker’s chair should Republicans maintain their majority status. If the Republicans lose their edge, the California congressman would still stand as a leading contender for House minority leader. Win or lose the Republican top spot, McCarthy might still be counted on by solar and wind interests as an influential friend in court.

The other House members mentioned in the article are from states with active solar markets or the ones most susceptible to rising temperatures. Congressman Curbelo, for example, is on the record as a climate-science believer. He opposed Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris agreement because of the impact warming is having on sea levels.

Curbelo represents the southern tip of Florida. His district includes the Everglades, Florida Keys and parts of the Miami metro area, some of the most vulnerable places on earth to sea level rise. Curbelo was also one of the first members of Congress to oppose Interior Secretary Zinke’s announced plan to open Florida’s coastal waters to offshore drilling.

Relative to the funds flowing from fossil fuel interests into campaign coffers solar and wind company contributions are little more than chump change. The Koch Bros have ponied up over $5 million in campaign contributions—all to Republican candidates and conservative groups, e.g., super PACs. Chevron has so far forked over $2.5 million, mostly to Republican candidates, and the nation’s largest coal company, Murray Energy, is in for over $1 million. (Source: Open Secrets)

Even compared to the contributions being made by climate defenders, the $400 thousand is barely petty cash. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) has so far contributed $1.6 million all to Democrats or liberal groups. Tom Steyer, the founder of NextGen America, has single-handedly contributed over $16 million to Democrats and liberal action committees. Add George Soros’ $7.6 million to Steyer’s funds, and they still don’t equal the nearly $26 million given to Republicans and conservative groups contributed by the Uihleins.  (Source: Open Secrets)

The Republican/Democratic split of 2018 campaign funds is the second time the industry has tilted its contributions towards Republicans. The 2016 presidential election was the first. According to Groom, Republicans received a little over half of the nearly $700,000 combined contributions from wind and solar PACs.

The solar industry’s strategy to turn the Administration and influential Congressional Republicans into supporters of the technology is not limited to campaign contributions. In the lead-up to Trump’s tariff decision, the group Solar Powers America commissioned Sean Hannity to cut a radio ad that ran in South Carolina. The statement Hannity read accused the two financially distressed panel-makers that filed the petition with the US International Trade Commission of attempt[ing] to “manipulate” trade laws, and a [to secure] a “bailout” that would increase prices by “government mandate.”

Solar Powers is a member of a group of U.S.-based solar manufacturers that ran TV advertisements in encouraging Trump not to levy the tariffs on cable national and D.C. cable stations. Why TV ads and Hannity? Hiring Hannity and running ads, whether on tariffs or generalized support for solar, is done for the most obvious of reasons; Trump watches Fox and listens to Hannity–sometimes.

According to Bret Sowers, a member of the Solar Powers America group:

Sean Hannity is a well-respected voice in the south. We [Solar Powers] were pleased with it, and we hope to work with Sean and others to continue educating the public on this trade issue.

Targeting influential House Republicans is the right Machiavellian move for the renewable energy sector—as is hiring individuals like Hannity who have the President’s ear. Solar and wind are not the only members of the clean energy sector contributing Republican candidates. (See Figure 1)

The outrage over Michael Cohen being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by companies like AT&T and Novartis is if you will pardon the expression, trumped up. Separate Cohen from hush money and the Russians and what you have is the typical purchase of influence not just in Capital City but every city. 

What sense does it make for solar companies to hire CNN’s Jim Acosta or MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski to reach out to Trump? He mocks them. Neither does it make sense to hire Hannity to gain access to Senate Minority Leader Schumer (D-NY) or House Minority Leader Pelosi (D-CA).


Within reasonable and established bounds there is nothing illegal  about hiring a political operative for her ability to gain access to  decisionmakers. Whether Cohen or Hannity are worth what they  were paid is an entirely different question. Money is not the only  price to be paid for hiring a Hannity or Brzezinski, however. 

Once upon a time in American politics, it was possible to reach across the political aisle without being accused of sleeping with the enemy. Within the context of hyper-partisanship, it is no longer possible to engage in nuanced battles between moderate—albeit opposing—forces. 

Straddling is not permitted—either within or between parties. One is either a populist or a progressive—a defender of the environment or an assailant. Contributing to the campaigns of Republicans like McCarthy and Heller is a suspicious act and risks losing the support of traditional allies.

Groom suggests in her article that the campaign contributions of AWEA and SEIA are being downplayed by environmental groups saying companies are simply trying to protect their interests by supporting the party in power. My decades of experience tell me it is not quite so simple.

Herein is the message of the canaries the campaign contributions being made to McCarthy, Heller and other of the Republicans risk weakening the collaborative relationship between environmentalists and the clean energy sector.

The article quotes Sara Chieffo, vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters: AWEA and SEIA are trade associations representing the financial business interests of their member companies. Chieffo also points out that the LCV is at odds with many of the solar and wind PACs decisions regarding which candidates to support. At the top of the list is Nevada’s Senator Heller.

Sabrina Singh, Democratic National Committee spokeswoman, questions why solar and wind companies would support Republicans over Democrats. Singh goes on to say Republicans consistently seek to defund efforts to promote clean energy, while Democrats at both the federal and state level have been fighting to promote renewable energy.

I hear these statements being made through gritted teeth. The collaboration of the clean energy and environmental sectors has shown itself over the years both powerful and successful. Technologies like solar and wind are the means of an orderly transition to a low-carbon economy can be accomplished—and, in a manner that does not risk the health of the economy.

It is a mistake, however, to take the relationship for granted. Chieffo is right AWEA and SEIA do represent the financial business interests of their members. We’ve seen in the past where the interests of environmentalists and clean energy project developers are in conflict.

The Ivanpah project in California was hailed by solar advocates for its ability to reduce harmful power plant emissions compared to fossil-fueled generating units. It was harangued by conservationists for its impacts on the delicate desert eco-system and wildlife populations.

Wind energy facilities have been the target of the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and other environmental groups. According to ABC, wind energy poses particular risks to endangered or threatened species such as Whooping Cranes and California Condors. Birds can also be impacted by habitat destruction and disturbance resulting from construction of turbines and access roads. Some birds, such as Greater Sage-Grouse, are susceptible to the presence of turbines and can be scared away from their breeding grounds up to several miles from a wind development.

Although solar and wind are much better for the environment than coal or natural gas, these technologies have become big business. They are naturally taking on the type of corporate characteristics conservationists have opposed in other large energy corporations.

The interest of investors and those of environmentalists are not always going to be compatible. The danger being warned of here is allowing hyper-partisan politics to drive a wedge between the clean energy and climate communities.

The strengths of each are multiplied when working in consort. Conflicts between the sectors can have outsized negative consequences. It takes very little these days to send the political system into gridlock. Moreover, conflicts between clean energy businesses and environmental advocates will be used by climate deniers to validate their claims that “tree huggers” are against economic growth and the interests of working people.

There is no simple solution to this potential problem. The canaries, in this case, are admonishing sector leaders to be mindful of the possibility of conflicts. Any good relationship requires work and a willingness to anticipate and confront problems while they are still relatively easy to solve.

Remember too the words of JFK’s address to the Canadian Parliament as they apply equally to the clean energy and climate communities–

Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder. What unites us is far greater than what divides us.

​[1] I have chosen to use the Reuters numbers. There are other numbers available at Open Secrets, cccccc, and xxxxx. The dollar contributions and splits differ depending on the source. The numbers in this case are less about the number of dollars and more about the direction, i.e., Republican v Democrat.

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion ( and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: American environmental policy, American politics, environmental regulations