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Republicans’ Flip-Flop on Wind Energy Could Hurt Them in 2016

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Which way is the wind blowing on alternative energy? Look no further than Iowa, where turbines have shot up across the flat, open landscape in recent years. Nationally, wind energy is still a nascent industry, accounting for just 4.4 percent of overall electricity production last year. But Iowa made an early bet on wind, and it's proving that alternate forms of energy can take on coal—if the conditions are right. And this has put the Republican candidates for president in an awkward position as they campaign in the swing state.

Iowa has come a long way since 2007, when the region received less than six percent of its electricity from wind and 75 percent from coal. By 2013, however, wind accounted for 28 percent of its electrical grid, with coal dropping to 59 percent. And coal’s dominance will continue to diminish. Last week, the public utility Iowa Interstate Power and Light said it would shut down or stop burning coal at five of its power plants in the next few years.

All this is music to the ears of liberal environmentalists, of course, who have long championed alternate sources of energy. It's hardly surprising that, in the 2014 election cycle, Democratic candidates reaped 70 percent of federal contributions from the American Wind Energy Association.

But Republicans were actually among wind energy's early proponents. In the early 1990s, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley was the lawmaker who authored the original legislation creating the wind production tax credit, the federal policy that’s been key to making wind competitive. President George H.W. Bush signed the tax credit into law in 1992, and George W. Bush renewed it. “I’m glad to defend the wind production tax credit and wind energy,” Grassley said in May. Among wind energy’s advantages, Grassley noted that it displaces “more expensive and more polluting sources of energy, lowering electricity prices for consumers.” Critics, he said, “disregard the many incentives and subsidies that exist for other sources of energy, and are permanent law.”

Today, though, GOP support for wind investment is scarce. Nearly all of the Republican candidates for president have come out against the wind production tax credit. At a summit in Iowa in March, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said he wanted to phase out federal benefits for wind energy and renewable fuels like ethanol—another popular issue in Iowa. “Ultimately, whether it’s ethanol or any other alternative fuel, renewable or otherwise,” Bush said, “the markets are ultimately going to have to decide this. 

At the same event, Texas Senator Ted Cruz likewise voiced his opposition to the tax credit. “Look, I think wind is terrific,” he said. “As you know Texas and Iowa are one and two in the country in wind production, but once again I don't think it should be the federal government dictating that.”

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has also said the tax credit should be phased out. And as members of Congress, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Rick Santorum have all voted against renewing it. Only New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has yet to take a public position on the tax credit.

Their opposition to wind energy lines up squarely with the greater Republican opposition to climate change science and environmental regulation. The Koch-backed fossil fuel group American Energy Alliance declared war on the wind production tax credit in 2012. “Our goal is to make the [tax credit] so toxic that it makes it impossible for John Boehner to sit at a table with Harry Reid and say, ‘Yeah, I can bend on this one,’” a spokesman told Politico at the time. Today, the group is still actively campaigning to let the tax credit expire. “A solution couldn’t come soon enough,” AEA President Thomas Pyle wrote in a May op-ed. “As history shows, wind welfare is a bad deal for taxpayers.”

But while leading the chants of “Drill, Baby, Drill,” may appeal to the broader Republican base, it could be problematic in Iowa, where wind is quite popular. In 2012, Iowans soured on Mitt Romney after he came out against the wind tax credit, which he characterized as a boondoggle.

“Wind energy will thrive wherever it is economically competitive, and wherever private-sector competitors with far more experience than the president believe the investment will produce results,” Romney said in a statement in July 2012.

That criticism earned Romney the ire of Grassley, Iowa Rep. Steve King, and Governor Terry Branstad—as well as Iowa voters more generally. King implied it would cost Romney. "We need to win Iowa this time," King told the Wall Street Journal during the election. "President Obama thinks it’s a must-win state for him, and I think it's a can-win state for Mitt Romney, but this wind piece ... .” In the end, President Barack Obama won Iowa, 52 percent to Romney’s 46.5 percent.

I asked some of the same Republicans critical of Romney in 2012 how they’d view a GOP leader who opposes the tax credit today. A spokesperson for Grassley said, “he regularly encourages presidential candidates to spend time in Iowa, listening to Iowans, and wind energy is popular in Iowa (as it is elsewhere) for a variety of reasons—promoting jobs and investment, environmental benefits, etc.”

Branstad’s spokesperson, Jimmy Centers, said, “In Iowa, where nearly 30% of our energy comes from renewable wind energy, the governor understands the value of a strong renewable energy sector, including wind energy. The governor believes the [wind power tax credit] provides the industry stability and predictability, creates jobs in Iowa, diversifies our nation’s energy portfolio, and reduces our dependence on foreign energy sources.”

Maybe it’s time for Republicans to distance themselves just a little from their fossil-fuel benefactors.