National Policy Battles Impact Sustainable Business

Green Investments Blocked By Uncertainty

Voluntary corporate sustainability initiatives and environmental policy are essential, but not complete solutions by themselves. We also need laws, oversight and guidelines to set the entire competitive floor at a level that protects the environment and ensures a quality and quantity of jobs consistent with human dignity. Such a platform will unleash even more innovation, but in directions that are sustainable.

Greener Cities network

Responsible and sustainably-focused business owners can make a big difference in policy fights by countering what policymakers hear from some in the traditional business community.

Here are three pro-sustainable business policy items the American Sustainable Business Council is working on in conjunction with many other organizations.

Renewable energy standards under attack

Renewable Portfolio Standards are state mandates that require utilities to produce a certain amount of energy from renewable sources within a specific time frame, such as wind, solar and biofuel. The standards vary from state to state. North Carolina for example, mandates 12.5 percent clean energy production by 2021, while Colorado calls for 30 percent by 2020. Regardless of the specific targets, the value of an RPS is in providing a clear policy signal to investors, manufacturers and technology companies that the market for renewable energy will grow.

Despite widespread public support, renewable energy standards are under attack in numerous states, often at the behest of oil-industry-funded interest groups. Recently, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group supported by ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers, among others, introduced the “Electricity Freedom Act.” This piece of so-called “model legislation” would repeal a state’s RPS, meaning utilities no longer would need to include renewable energy in their mix and those energy sources would lose a significant market foothold. That would kill jobs and weaken these states’ economies.

The legislation has been introduced in 11 states this year. In Kansas, efforts to repeal the state’s RPS have failed. Despite an earlier win in a North Carolina House committee, which failed to pass an anti-RPS bill, the state’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard still isn’t safe in this legislative session. In Ohio, efforts are underway to repeal the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard.

Last year, ALEC-backed efforts to weaken or repeal an RPS were introduced in 19 states, and passed in Ohio, New Hampshire and Virginia.

First enacted in 1916, the farm bill is typically reauthorized every five years. It represents billions of dollars in government expenditures that set the farm, food and rural policy goals and priorities for the country. The 2008 farm bill cost more than $288 billion over a five-year period.

After the 2012 farm bill failed to pass, action on the new 2013 farm bill has begun to heat up. The House and the Senate have both issued drafts of their farm bills; this legislation will profoundly shape our nation’s food and farm system for the next five years.

On May 14, the 2013 farm bill quickly cleared the Senate Agriculture Committee. Late the following night, the House Agriculture Committee approved its version of a $940 billion farm bill. The current farm bill expires September 30, so lawmakers in both houses need to approve their respective bills before the August recess.

What’s at stake?

Without funding for many vital programs, small and mid-sized farmers will find it more difficult to stay in business. These programs are designed to bring jobs to rural markets, create greater access to healthy foods and provide microloans for emerging agri-business.

Sustainable agriculture champions in Congress have introduced several amendments that support family farms, build strong communities, protect natural resources, invest in future farmers and ensure real reform of commodity payments. Some content included in these amendments came from the following bills:

The Growing Opportunities in Agriculture and Responding to Markets, GO FARM Act of 2013 (S.678)
The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2013 (H.R.1727 and S.837)
The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 (H.R.1414 and S.679)

These amendments are important for the future of sustainable agriculture and it is vital that they make it into the final version of the farm bill. For this to happen, the voices of those who believe in the importance of sustainable agriculture need to be heard.

Reliable, long-term financing has been one of the greatest obstacles to moving the nation toward a clean energy future. Clean Energy Victory Bonds can be a big part of the solution. The Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act of 2013 would create an investment vehicle with government backing, but no tax dollars.

Green America and the American Sustainable Business Council are working on the reintroduction of the Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act, meeting with House offices on both sides of the aisle as well as with federal agencies. The bond will support renewable energy and energy efficiency measures, strengthen our domestic clean energy industries and create an estimated 1.7 million jobs. Discussions are also underway on the creation of state-level CEVBs. The House bill is expected to be reintroduced soon, followed by a Senate version.

What’s at stake?

The United States once was the leading innovator and exporter of renewable sources of energy and technologies. Currently, however, it lags behind the likes of Germany, China, Italy, Canada, Spain and Brazil in clean energy investments as a percentage of GDP. In 2010 alone, China made $48 billion in renewable energy investments compared to just $25 billion by the United States.

From coal to nuclear to oil, no new energy source was developed without significant government funding. Today, the alternative, environmentally sustainable, clean energy path should be the focus.


Renewable Energy Use in The United States

Florida and Texas might be leading America’s expansion of solar and wind power, but Washington, where hydroelectric dams provide over 60 percent of the state’s energy, was the country’s biggest user of renewable power in 2011, according to new statistics released last week by the federal Energy Information Administration.


Hydro continued to be the overwhelmingly dominant source of renewable power consumed nationwide, accounting for 67 percent of the total, followed by wind with 25 percent, geothermal with 4.5 percent, and solar with 3.5 percent. The new EIA data is the latest official snapshot of how states nationwide make use of renewable power, from industrial-scale generation to rooftop solar panels, and reveals an incredible gulf between leaders like Washington, California, and Oregon, and states like Rhode Island and Mississippi that use hardly any.

The gap is partly explained by the relative size of states’ energy markets, but not entirely: Washington uses less power overall than New York, for example, but far outstrips it on renewables (the exact proportions won’t be available until EIA releases total state consumption figures later this month). Still, the actual availability of resources—how much sun shines or wind blows—is far less important than the marching orders passed down from statehouses to electric utilities, says Rhone Resch, head of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“Without some carrot or stick, there’s little reason to pick [renewables] up” in many states, he says; even given the quickly falling price of clean energy technology, natural gas made cheap by fracking is still an attractive option for many utilities.

More than half of the 29 states that require utilities to purchase renewable power are currently considering legislation to pare back those mandates, in many cases pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council. “We’re opposed to these mandates, and 2013 will be the most active year ever in terms of efforts to repeal them,” ALEC energy task force director Todd Wynn recently told Bloomberg.

But so far the tide seems to be turning against that campaign: This week the Minnesota legislature will consider two versions of a bill passed by the House and Senate that would require utilities to get 1-4 percent of their power from solar by 2025 (solar made up less than one percent of Minnesota’s renewable power in 2011); last month North Carolina, the same state that outlawed talking about sea level rise, surprised green energy advocates by voting down a proposal to ax the state’s renewable mandates, followed a few days later by a vote in Colorado to increase rural communities’ access to renewables. But challenges remain ahead in some of the very states that already rank relatively low for renewables consumption, including Connecticut, Missouri, and Ohio.

Karin Wadsack, director of a Northern Arizona University-based project to monitor these legislative battles, says the time is now for states to start mixing in more clean energy.

“If you have all these utilities sticking with gas, coal, and nuclear, then you create a situation where 20 years from now they aren’t prepared to deal with the increased climate risk,” she says. “Electricity is a huge piece of the climate puzzle, so [utilities] need to be learning what to do with renewables.”

There’s always the option that Congress could set a renewables standard on the national level—a group of senators took a failed stab at one in 2010 only a few months after Republicans killed the infamous cap-and-trade bill. But don’t hold your breath, Wadsack says: “I don’t know that I would call it a pipe dream. But I wouldn’t see it happening in our current set of national priorities.”