A wind blows up around energy policy

By Tom Baxter

To understand how the sun, the wind and the coal beneath our feet all got assigned to political categories, you have to go back to the 1970s.

It was then that the OPEC oil embargo jolted Americans into the alarming awareness they were dependent on a foreign substance that wasn’t getting them high. The Karen Silkwood case, the Browns Ferry and Three Mile Island nuclear accidents sharpened the argument between left and right over how to bring light and heat into American’s homes. And Jimmy Carter’s efforts to reassure the American public in a sweater only deepened the political divide.

If you had asked experts way back then to predict what sort of political battle lines might be drawn over energy policy in the future, they would have said it would be the struggle between nuclear power and solar power. Or they might have foreseen the conflict between the energy conservation policies Carter espoused and Ronald Reagan’s emphasis on energy production.

It’s unlikely any expert would have predicted that at this point in the 21st Century, the political weather vane would be oriented along the axis between wind and coal. But in many ways that’s the best way to understand where we are today.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised to return the country to “beautiful clean coal.” For a long time, both Republicans and Democrats have advocated the development of more environmentally friendly ways to burn coal, but the flagship of that effort, Southern Company’s Kemper Project clean coal plant in Mississippi, continues to be a money swamp.

Last month Southern Company announced fourth quarter earnings of 20 cents a share, compared to 30 cents in the same period the year before, due to the delays and cost overruns which have plagued the giant project. Its offspring company, the Mississippi Power Co., filed an analysis with the Mississippi Public Service Commission concluding that with energy prices at their current level, the only profitable way to run the plant would be to burn natural gas, not coal. Southern Company officials have remained committed to the goal of burning lignite coal at the plant, but ratepayers are growing restive.

Meanwhile, wind energy production passed an impressive milestone at the end of the past year, surpassing the production of the nation’s hydroelectric plants for the first time.

At the dawn of energy politics, wind was looked on as the little brother of solar, but over time wind energy has proved the brawniest of the renewables, proving its viability quickly and often asserting itself in places — like the mountains of Vermont or the waters off Cape Cod — where it wasn’t wanted. Trump isn’t the only American to complain about “those awful windmills,”  but the United States is now the world’s largest producer of wind energy.

What’s more, wind has an advantage the other renewables don’t have: Energy Secretary Rick Perry is a big wind guy. Texas has become the nation’s biggest wind energy producer, and in his Senate confirmation hearing, the former Texas governor didn’t hesitate to take some credit for wind’s success in his state.

There are different estimates based on what energy-production jobs are counted, but a widely accepted number is that there are now about 80,000 coal mining jobs in the United States. In January, there were more than 100,000 wind energy jobs in the country. These are mostly construction jobs, but they’re jobs. Solar energy, which is particularly labor intensive, now employs more Americans than those producing electricity with oil, gas and coal combined.

Take a moment and let those numbers sink in, because they’re in striking contrast to the assumptions underlying the political debate. If jobs have become such a big part of energy politics, why does coal loom so important now, decades after it was forecast to be phased out over time? Even if the number of coal mining jobs could be doubled, that wouldn’t come close to the job creation forecast over the next few years for renewables, even in the hostile climate of the Trump administration.

The answer is that the political debate has become less about job creation and more about job re-creation.

Nobody’s grandpa installed solar panels. Surely, there are talented children who are proud to be wind farm technician’s daughters, but to date none of them have written any country songs on the subject. Coal mining has a cultural resonance which makes it an effective metaphor for a lot the country has lost.
But the employment numbers don’t lie. And there have been some very good songs written about the wind.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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