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Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Cruel Month for Clean Energy

A commentary
by Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin
May 4, 2010

Renewable energy businesses and activists entered the month of April with high hopes of seeing the State Legislature pass the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA), a comprehensive bill designed to propel Wisconsin toward energy independence, along the way creating thousands of new jobs and strengthening the sustainable energy marketplace. This comprehensive bill would have raised the renewable energy content of electricity sold in Wisconsin, while stepping up ratepayer support for smaller-scale renewable energy installations throughout the state.

Unfortunately, on April 22, the State Senate adjourned for the year without taking action on the Clean Energy Jobs Act bill, effectively killing the measure and leaving hundreds of businesses and individuals who campaigned for the bill empty-handed.

If life imitates poetry, then the line that opens T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land—“April is the cruelest month”—aptly encapsulates the evolution of a campaign that overcame many obstacles in the final weeks only to be undermined by the unwillingness of Senate leaders to schedule a vote on the bill. The sense of anticipation that began the month was swept away by a combination of personal feuds, extreme partisanship, and increasingly polarized public attitudes toward climate change. That the bill’s demise coincided with the 40th anniversary of Earth Day was seen by supporters as an especially cruel twist of fate.

It certainly didn’t help matters that the some of the state’s most politically entrenched constituencies banded together to fight CEJA at every stage of the process. Among the hard-core opponents were Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the Paper Council and the Farm Bureau. Their vociferous opposition scuttled bipartisanship, eliminating the possibility that a Republican legislator would vote for the bill.

Working hand-in-glove with vitriolic right-wing radio talk show hosts, the opposition supplied their grassroots faithful with a smorgasbord of exaggerated claims, hyperbole, outright fantasy, and pseudoscience. Though the analysis purporting to document the opposition’s assertions set a new low in academic rigor, it succeeded in its aim, which was to plant the seeds of fear among certain legislators about the ultimate cost of this legislation before the bill was even introduced.

Working just as vigorously for the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a broad spectrum of interests answered the requests for help. Whether they were one-person solar installation businesses or Fortune 500 corporations like Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls, CEJA supporters wrote letters, made phone calls, and corralled their legislators at the Capitol on several days during March and April.

In dozens of face-to-face meetings with their representatives, CEJA supporters made the case for this bill by bringing out their own experiences as business owners, farmers, educators, builders, and skilled tradesmen. They presented a local and highly personal angle to the clean energy policy debate that many legislators had not appreciated before. Their passion and energy were instrumental in giving this bill a fighting chance for passage at the end of the session. Unfortunately, the campaign could not overcome the pique of the Senate Democrats.

One legislator who kept pushing this ambitious bill up the legislative hill until the very last day was Assembly representative Spencer Black, who was one of the four principal authors of the measure. CEJA supporters are indebted to Rep. Black for his vigorous leadership and his determined efforts to round up support among his compatriots for passing this bill.

Two rays of sunlight did manage to pierce through the heavy clouds at the close of April, prompted by the dedication of the two largest wind turbines owned by Wisconsin schools. In each case, the school erected a 100-kilowatt Northwind turbine manufactured by Vermont-based Northern Power Systems. One serves Wausau East High School while the other feeds power to the Madison Area Technical College’s Fort Atkinson branch. The turbines will offset a significant fraction of the electricity consumed at each school.

Located well within the city limits of Wausau and Fort Atkinson, these 155-foot-tall wind generators eloquently testify to the breadth and depth of public support for renewable energy across Wisconsin. Next January, the Legislature will witness the return of clean energy supporters with similar legislation for strengthening Wisconsin’s renewable energy marketplace. In the meantime, we will be working hard to achieve a very different outcome.
END

Michael Vickerman is the executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a sustainable energy advocacy organization headquartered in Madison. For more information on Wisconsin renewable energy policy, visit RENEW’s web site at: www.renewwisconsin.org.

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