While the presidential election takes center stage, a key congressional race is heating up, and the results have the potential to transform federal policy for wind power and other forms of renewable energy.
Mike O'Brien, an ex-marine and former regional director at offshore wind energy developer Bluewater Wind, is challenging incumbent Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., current chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, for Michigan's 6th District House seat.
Although Upton, who has held a Michigan congressional seat since 1987 (first in the state's 4th District, and then in the 6th), says he supports an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy, he has been one of the most vocal opponents of both the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) loan-guarantee program and the Treasury Department's Section 1603 cash-grant program, and has shot down several proposals meant to stimulate renewable energy development in the U.S., including a clean energy standard.
But Upton now finds himself going head to head with O'Brien, a strong proponent of renewable energy, especially wind power. From May 2009 to December 2010, O'Brien served as regional director of development for the Great Lakes and the Canadian Maritimes at Bluewater Wind, where he worked with former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm's Offshore Wind Council on the early stages of offshore wind energy development in the Great Lakes and the Canadian Maritimes.
Plans were going smoothly until there was a marked political shift in views on renewable energy, O'Brien tells NAW. He pegs 2010 as the year when energy became a partisan issue.
This is the wrong approach, O'Brien says, because energy is a matter of national security. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense is the single largest investor in renewable energy, and the agency has promised to install wind, solar, geothermal and biomass energy projects at or near its bases.
"The DOD has made it clear that they fully understand and embrace renewables as part of our energy policy as a part of national security," O'Brien points out.
Emphasizing the importance of renewable energy to national security could be the path to a bipartisan compromise, he says, adding that developing renewable energy is also a critical step toward addressing climate change and repairing the U.S. economy. So what's the first step toward achieving those goals?
It will take "a loud and forceful acknowledgment that energy policy – wind energy, renewables – are a climate issue, a national security issue and, most fundamentally, an economic issue," O'Brien says. "When the government sends that market signal, folks will stand up. And one of the tools to support that is the production tax credit (PTC)."
O'Brien says he supports a five-year PTC extension. "At the end of those five years, you evaluate its effectiveness and extend it or modify it," he notes, adding that, if elected, he will "absolutely" introduce such a measure.
But first, "We need responsible representatives that understand those four reasons – energy, economics, climate and national security," O'Brien says. "If we understand that critical importance, we write multiyear programs, and we evaluate them intelligently. Right now, it's not an intelligent discussion in Congress."
Last month, Upton requested that the Government Accountability Office review federal support for energy, transmission, transportation fuels and related infrastructure. However, he was later challenged by House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who criticized Upton for allegedly leaving out several support measures given to the oil and gas industries, such as write-offs for intangible drilling costs.
O'Brien disagrees with Upton's claim that removing all federal support for energy will put all energy resources on an even playing field.
"We talk about an all-of-the-above energy policy – that we don't pick winners and losers," he says. "And there could be no greater untruth than in the energy industry – particularly that we don't pick winners and losers. We're still subsidizing oil – billions and billions of dollars of oil."
Despite energy's partisan nature on Capitol Hill, polls have shown that the U.S. public strongly supports renewable energy.
"Clearly, we've politicized something that the rest of us in America already understand works," O'Brien adds, citing Iowa as an example of a place where wind energy has flourished with broad bipartisan support.
Although he commends Iowa for its wind energy success, O'Brien says Michigan should be playing the lead role in wind power manufacturing.
"We should own the manufacture of wind equipment in Michigan – we should own it, hands down," he says. "We are the manufacturing state in this country. Those 8,000 components that we talk about – every one of them can be made in Michigan. And with our access to the lakes and the highways – and our dormant capacity, our amazing abundance of workers and tools and universities – we should own that."
Michigan is beginning to recognize that opportunity. Proposal 3 – the state's ballot measure that proposes to increase the state's renewable portfolio standard from 10% by 2015 to 25% by 2025 – has grabbed national attention, even gaining support from former President Bill Clinton.
Although the state's major utilities, Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, support renewable energy, they say they oppose the initiative because it would modify the state's constitution and increase costs for their customers.
The measure will be voted on next Tuesday, as will Michigan's 6th District congressional seat. Both decisions, of course, will ultimately impact renewable energy's near-term future. Wind power, O'Brien says, shouldn't be seen as a controversy, but rather an opportunity.
"It's not just energy policy – it's climate, it's national security and it's economics," he says. "That, to me, creates a no-brainer opportunity."