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Election Post-Mortem: Mostly Good News for Clean Tech

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As President Obama and the lame ducks head toward the fiscal cliff, what do his resounding victory and other election results mean for the clean-tech industry?

My first reaction is simply this: clean tech averted total disaster. Some of my colleagues in the clean-tech world hoped that, in the event of a Mitt Romney win, he would bring some of the 'Massachusetts Mitt' to the office and support clean-energy companies as he did as governor, but I harbored no such hopes. Romney's recycled "drill-baby-drill" campaign rhetoric, his (and Paul Ryan's) constant denigration of the Department of Energy loan program, and his hundreds of millions in contributions from fossil-fuel interests added up to a potentially devastating next four years for clean energy, and for environmental progress in general in the U.S. It could have been even worse than the years of George W. Bush, who was generally horrific on the environment but actually did put some clean energy-supporting policies in place.

What I do hope is that Obama, now free of the need to worry about electoral votes from coal states like Ohio and Virginia, will seek to create a legacy of action on climate change and clean-energy deployment. Many are justifiably skeptical about that, given continued partisan opposition, fiscal constraints, and countless other legislative priorities. Unfortunately, Obama's apparent hedging on action on climate change in his Nov. 14 news conference was not an encouraging sign. We'll get a better sense in upcoming weeks with Obama's potential new nominations or appointments to head DOE, EPA, and other key agencies. But there's no question that we're looking at a far brighter scenario than any I could imagine in a Romney-Ryan administration.

In Senate, House, and gubernatorial races, however, Election Night was overwhelmingly positive for clean tech. The American Wind Energy Association, for example, noted at its fall conference in Phoenix on Nov. 15 that candidates it supported won 88% of their races in the Senate and 86% in the House. Come January, some new, very clean tech-friendly people will be taking office. Here's a brief report card of the mostly good, and a bit of bad and ugly, results from around the nation. First, some selected key winners:

Jay Inslee, Governor, Washington State
. This may be clean tech's top result. The eight-term Congressman from the Seattle area has been one of the industry's staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill. He even co-authored a book about it, Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy, in 2009. He campaigned for governor partially on this issue, and his victory is a big positive for clean tech in Washington and the nation.

Maggie Hassan, Governor, New Hampshire. Hassan, part of New Hampshire's first-in-history, all-female delegation (two Senators, two House members, and the governor), is a solid clean-energy supporter. As majority leader in the State Senate, she helped spearhead the drive for the state to join the Northeast's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the nation's first regional carbon-trading system. (I wonder if Gov. Chris Christie might rethink his 2011 withdrawal of New Jersey from RGGI after Superstorm Sandy). At any rate, Hassan should give New Hampshire solid leadership on clean energy.

Angus King, Senator, Maine. Next door to New Hampshire, Maine voters elected King, the Independent former governor, to the U.S. Senate, flipping Republican Olympia Snowe's seat as King will caucus with the Democrats. On clean-energy support, all you really need to know is that King is a former wind power project developer. He co-founded Brunswick, Me.-based Independence Wind, and of course took heat from his Republican opponent for getting one of those evil federal loan guarantees. King should be a good advocate for clean energy in the Senate.

It's also worth noting that another former wind industry guy, California Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton), once again survived Republican efforts to wrest away the seat he won from longtime environmental nemesis Richard Pombo in 2006.

Jared Huffman, U.S. House, California. Okay, confessing to a bit of hometown pride here-Huffman is the newly-elected Congressman from my home district (Marin and part or all of five other counties) in northern California. A former Natural Resources Defense Council attorney, Huffman became a prolific legislator on energy and environment issues in three terms in the state Assembly. Freshman Congressmen can't always get too much accomplished, but for clean-energy supporters, Huffman will be worth keeping an eye on.

On the bad/ugly side:
Michigan Proposal 3. Voters overwhelmingly defeated a proposed amendment to the state constitution to establish a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) mandating that Michigan utilities get 25% of their electricity from clean-energy sources by 2025. Some call this a big setback for clean tech, noting that it's the first electoral rejection of an RPS after voters in three states (Colorado, Washington, and Missouri) have approved them since 2004.

But "Michigan 3" was problematic on several fronts. As much as I support aggressive RPSs, putting one in the state constitution seems like a very radical way to go about enacting it. Michigan voters also rejected four other proposed constitutional amendments on a variety of issues. Secondly, Michigan already has an RPS, albeit a relatively weak one of 10% by 2015. The problem here is not the defeat of the measure itself, but the danger that it will be spun by renewable-energy opponents as a wholesale rejection of clean tech. I don't think it was.

On balance, Election Day 2012 was a good one for the clean-energy industry. One caveat: with the exception of the Independent King, all the winning candidates cited above are Democrats, reflecting the unfortunate reality of clean energy as a partisan issue. But there are hopeful signs on this front, too. Nine of 23 members of the Governors Wind Energy Coalition are Republicans, including staunch conservatives like Kansas' Sam Brownback and Oklahoma's Mary Fallin. And last week saw the launch of a new advocacy group to support wind power, the Red State Renewable Alliance, headed by GOP operative John Feehery, a former spokesman for none other than Tom DeLay. The group's web site notes that 75% of U.S. wind capacity is in Congressional districts served by Republicans.

"Clean renewable energy," say the red-staters, "is a good investment for taxpayers, ratepayers, and for our national security." On Election Day, a majority of America's voters agreed.

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