Solar Energy Enjoys Strong, Growing Support From…Conservatives?

Renewable energy is not something we generally associate with conservative and Republican groups. With so many Republicans receiving support from, or being outright bankrolled by, the Koch brothers, it’s no wonder that we hear about them doing absolutely everything they can to fight renewable energy.

However, on a smaller level, solar energy is taking off…with the support of conservative groups.

Many of the states that have seen the biggest growth in solar energy jobs are traditionally red states. According to the Washington Post, states such as Nevada and Arizona have seen tremendous growth in solar energy. That makes some sense, because these are naturally sunny states. Nevada’s Republican governor, Sandoval, is a huge supporter of solar energy, along with U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R-NV). Nevada is so sunny, though, that it would be stupid not to work to take advantage of that.

However, Ohio and North Carolina are also on the list of states leading solar energy growth, and few people would argue that either state is a “sunny” enough state for that to just make sense. Both states have Republican governors and Republican-dominated legislatures, and the number of solar jobs in North Carolina has shot up 80 percent in the last year. Ohio now has over 4,000 solar jobs.

There are non-hypocritical conservative groups who see renewable energy as freedom of choice for Americans.

In what might appear to be an interesting twist, conservatives are embracing solar energy on state and local levels, instead of fighting it like their counterparts in Washington, and those involved with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is adamantly opposed to renewable energy, as are the Heartland Institute and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity.

These particular conservatives are probably the least hypocritical when it comes to their ideas of personal liberty. They see solar energy as an energy choice to which more people should have access. The idea of cheap energy, and of an alternative to the power companies that hold monopolies over most of us, is their motivation.

Washington Republicans, on the other hand, would rather squash the growing threat that renewable energy represents for their Big Oil backers.

Washington Republicans who receive support from those groups pushed back hard against continuing to subsidize wind energy back in December, according to The Washington Post. The idea is that the wind energy subsidy is big government, because it means taxpayer dollars are being used to “pick winners and losers in the energy market.”

However, taxpayer dollars also subsidize the oil industry, which hasn’t needed any subsidies for a very long time. These subsidies are indirect subsidies that come in the form of tax breaks. An article in Mother Jones says that the oil companies get depletion allowances and a domestic manufacturing deduction, along with the ability to write off drilling expenses. This costs U.S. taxpayers over $4 billion per year.

Congress won’t end those subsidies anytime soon, because that’s just helping business out. Any subsidizing of renewable energy at all, however, is big government at work. Why? Because renewable energy is a threat to the likes of the Koch brothers, and the other oil investors and tycoons that have Congressional Republicans in their pockets. End the subsidies, and the industry could die.

So these Republicans will say that government support of renewable energy removes competition from the market and hurts consumers and businesses. When it comes down to it, though, competition is best when consumers have choices, and right now, consumers don’t have many choices. We can’t choose which company delivers power to our houses and businesses. But with affordable renewables, like solar panels, suddenly, we have that choice.

That is the difference, and why renewable energy has an unlikely ally in some conservative groups. The ones who truly believe in marketplace competition and freedom of choice are the ones who want to expand access to solar energy.

It’s not just consumer choice, though. It’s also about jobs.

The solar industry has created more jobs than Keystone XL ever will. Washington Republicans keep touting Keystone XL as a “job-creation bill,” though, probably as another way to keep their oil industry friends happy. As noted above, there are several states with well over 4,000 jobs in solar energy, and many more are coming. These states have seen huge jumps in job growth because of solar.

Add to that the fact that solar is continuing to gain ground (hence all the money spent to try to curb it, along with wind power), and that is where the long-term energy jobs are. According to The Solar Foundation, as of November 2014, the U.S. had more than 173,000 jobs in the solar industry.

The Solar Foundation expects that number to grow by more than 20 percent over the next year. Also, in 2013, one out of every 78 new jobs was in the solar industry, and these jobs provide more stable, living-wage opportunities than many other industries lately.

Contrast that to the ever-shifting landscape of oil, where plunging prices have forced the cancellation of drilling contracts across U.S. oil shale formations, because oil shale extraction is simply not profitable at the current prices. That costs jobs. When the energy source is a commodity, and limited, market players like OPEC and the oil companies can manipulate prices to their benefit. When the source is both unlimited and difficult to control, that gets much harder.

While it’s impossible to say how many jobs the solar industry will create, and how many will stick around for the long-term, it’s safe to say that the solar industry is likely a far better job-creating machine than is either Keystone XL, or the oil industry as a whole.

In other words, you have Republicans who believe in market competition, who believe in freedom of choice and who believe in creating jobs. Then you have the Republicans who are in the pockets of Big Oil.

What this represents is a major, growing rift in the GOP.

When a Republican who supports the oil industry complains about big government and about jobs, you always know that they’re doing whatever they can to make sure their rich friends get richer.

Featured image by the United States Air Force. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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