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Unlikely Firms Bring Clout and Cash to Clean Energy Lobbying Effort

Companies with no direct ties to renewable power lobbied to save the wind tax credit, signaling a change in the fight for clean energy incentives.

Jan 22, 2013
The San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm in Whitewater, Calif.

When Amy Hargroves made the rounds in Congress last fall to lobby for an extension of the wind production tax credit, she was often greeted with confusion: Why was she here talking about wind power?

That's because Hargroves wasn't fighting for the credit as a representative of a turbine manufacturer like Vestas or an interest group like the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Instead, she was representing Sprint Nextel, a telecommunications giant with no direct ties to the wind game.

Sprint is among dozens of seemingly unrelated corporations, including Starbucks, Levi Strauss and New Belgium Brewing, who lobbied to save the wind tax credit. It's hard to gauge how much effect they had on lawmakers' last-minute decision to give the tax credit a one-year reprieve by putting it in the fiscal cliff tax package. But their involvement shows that the business community has identified a need for renewables and could become an important lobbying force in promoting clean energy.

"This signals a change in the coalition structure," said Clyde Wilcox, a professor in the government department at Georgetown University. "In the past, it would be green energy companies or environmental groups that have either a business interest or a public interest in these issues. But people look up when a new series of players lines up."

Some companies, like Sprint, lobbied for the wind tax credit on their own. Others joined Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP), which was founded in 2008 by the green investment group Ceres to push for energy legislation. Its 23 members include clothing retailers (Gap and Eileen Fisher), tech companies (eBay and CA Technologies) and the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team.

As more large corporations set internal goals to reduce their carbon footprints, they have a vested interest in keeping renewable energies cheap and available. Some are also looking to the future and are concerned that climate change could affect their bottom lines.

Starbucks for instance, has pegged its environmental goals not just to reducing its own footprint, but to "help ensure the supply of high-quality coffee that our customers expect from us into the future."

BICEP director Anne Kelly, who is also a registered lobbyist, said her organization encourages companies that are already committed to reducing their carbon footprints to step forward and join the broader political discussion on climate and energy issues.

"Our focus is not to simply have the decisions being made by those in Washington," Kelly said. "We all have a stake in the climate and energy crisis. These companies see it in their supply chains, in the energy they buy, so they should be standing at the table."

Broader Issues Important

BICEP members have weighed in on a variety of issues, from the 2009 cap-and-trade bill to state-level renewable portfolio standards that would require a certain percentage of a state's power to come from clean sources. After Hurricane Sandy swamped the East Coast, Kelly said, companies also expressed interest in promoting adaptation and resiliency policies, because they saw that extreme weather could damage their factories or customer base.

In September, 19 corporations signed a letter BICEP sent to the party leaders in both chambers supporting the wind production tax credit, or PTC. Several companies that signed aren’t BICEP members, including Sprint and Johnson & Johnson.

"As Congress investigates ways to spur business growth, we urge you to ensure an extension of the PTC," the letter said. "Failure to extend the PTC for wind would tax our companies and thousands of others like us that purchase significant amounts of renewable energy and hurt our bottom lines at a time when the economy is struggling to recover."

Fort Collins, Colo.-based New Belgium Brewing, which signed the letter, boasts on its sustainability blog that it was the first American company to get all its energy from wind power. Keeping wind energy popular—and cheaper—helps the brewery keep its costs low and, the blog says, helps add wind to the state's energy mix.

The American Wind Energy Association has warned that letting the credit lapse would mean a steep drop in new wind projects. When it was allowed to expire in the past, new installations dropped between 73 and 93 percent. The credit is valued at 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity produced from utility-scale turbines. Since its creation in 1992, it has been renewed five times.

With the one-year renewal in hand, AWEA is now pressing Congress for a long-term deal: A six-year extension that gradually phases out the credit.

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