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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
(Page 2 of 3 )
The San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm in Whitewater, Calif.

Hargroves said Sprint aims to get 10 percent of its power from renewables by 2017 and might have trouble meeting that goal if the tax credit expired and fewer producers invested in wind energy. Sprint has already seen the pitfalls of losing a wind contract. When its five-year, clean energy purchasing arrangement with Kansas City Power & Light ended, Sprint's share of wind power dropped from 2.5 percent to just .5 percent, forcing the company to make up the difference by buying renewable energy credits.

Some companies now see the wind tax credit as a small piece in a larger clean energy picture.

Google, for example, has lobbied for a variety of energy programs, and last week announced a $2.65 million grant to the Energy Foundation to promote more smart grid technology.

The failure of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, better known as the Waxman-Markey climate bill, in 2009 was a bitter disappointment to BICEP members and other companies that supported the bill.

Apple and Nike resigned from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposes cap and trade, in order to support the legislation.

With no other grand-scale climate legislation on the horizon, Kelly said BICEP's members and other companies are focusing on smaller initiatives, like the wind tax credit, that might be easier to pass. If those victories can be achieved, she said larger goals could be set.

"We're already starting to see some consensus around needing a price on carbon," she said. "We know it's politically volatile, but our members are saying we need to tax things that we don't want."

Not the Usual Suspects

The corporate lobbying effort has been a boon for the renewable energy industry. Having big business backing the wind tax credit has brought more credence—and heft—to the fight by taking it out of the realm of non-profits and wind companies.

"We're getting such broad bipartisan support because people see this as an American industry," said Ellen Carey, spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association. "I think Americans and businesses see the potential here and understand the benefits of that potential in jobs ... and low-cost energy."

AWEA has made that case countless times before, to the public and on the Hill. But having large businesses with deep pockets and hundreds of employees send that message draws a different kind of attention.

"Usually what happens on Capitol Hill is like that quote from Casablanca: 'Round up the usual suspects,'" said Georgetown's Wilcox. "You'll get Sierra Club and the [Natural Resources Defense Council] and groups like that on one side, and then on the other side the oil companies and some of the ideological Republicans.

"But then here come these political elites or corporate leaders who say this is an important issue for them. People stand back when there are more than just the usual suspects doing it."

Wilcox pointed to the gay marriage movement as an example of how corporations have challenged the lobbying status quo. Google launched a "Legalize Love" campaign last summer to fight anti-homosexuality laws around the world, including anti-gay marriage legislation in California. Other companies have also spoken out in support of gay marriage.

The participation of outside companies also means more money for wind tax lobbying.

According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the American Wind Energy Association spent $1.5 million on lobbying in 2011. The American Petroleum Institute, in comparison, spent just over $8.6 million lobbying for its members' interests and a single oil company, Exxon Mobil, spent $12.7 million.

The wind lobby got a boost from Starbucks, which spent $580,000 on lobbying in 2011, with environmental issues—including clean energy promotion—among the company's top five issues.

Sprint spent almost $4 million, with energy ranked as its second-most lobbied issue. That included meetings with lawmakers to discuss the wind tax credit, improving the use of hydrogen fuel cells for backup power and other general clean energy issues.

Sprint doesn't pretend that its effort is entirely altruistic.

"We're a company. We're selfish," Hargroves said. "For renewable energy, we came up against a barrier in purchasing more wind and right now the PTC will help us get over that barrier. When other barriers come up, we'll deal with them."

Hargroves expects it will become more common for businesses to coalesce around social issues, an idea supported by a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. It identified the trend of "creating shared value," where companies look past short-term profits and focus on improving society. That means not only setting sustainability or charitable goals, but "creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges," wrote Harvard professor Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, founder of the consulting firm FSG.

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