Conservatives and Conservation in the Midwest

Posted March 1, 2017

My home state of Wisconsin voted for a Republican in this presidential election, and with that victory came the reelection of a Republican Senator as well. Currently, just one of the thirteen Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MEEA) member states have a Democrat as Governor, and just two went blue this presidential election. When MEEA was founded 20 years ago, 108 of the 137 electoral votes its states cast went to the Democratic candidate for President. Last year that number was only 30. Out here in the Midwest, things have changed.

Source: BBC

Last week, I attended the Midwest Energy Solutions Conference, which is held perennially by MEEA in Chicago, Illinois. In break-outs, dinner talk, and hallway meetings, us efficiency nerds still discussed Distributed Energy Resources (DERs), mobile apps, customer engagement, smart stuff, and the fluid possibilities for the future of utility business models, but another strain of conversation edged its way in as well. From Keynotes to elevator chats, attendees had thoughts on how conservatives could be convinced to embrace energy efficiency. Federal policy advocates talked about new alliances to be formed, state policy advocates and stakeholders pointed to victories (and some defeats), and a Policy Director from the US Chamber of Commerce explained how efficient ultra-supercritical pulverizing coal plants are. All around, speakers made the case for reframing the way we discuss energy efficiency to fit the politics of today.

Efficiency as a concept is apolitical. Getting the same benefit out of less resources, absent any other ideas, feels intuitively good. We like it when our money or time is spent efficiently because it means there’s some left over, which almost feels like getting something for nothing. However, when we start talking about energy efficiency, especially as the result of a state resource standard or state-run program, the concept sits better with liberals because it has traditionally been realized by liberal means, with results cast in liberal terms. When the Clean Power Plan was set to drive growth in the energy efficiency industry by relying heavily on demand-side management, a focus on emissions reductions made sense. Outside of the blue states actively pursuing emissions standards now, a different approach is warranted.

So here it is…

Public utilities are guaranteed a return on investment by the government. Energy efficiency programs loosen the grip of these government-supported power monopolies by expanding consumer choice over the way we use energy. They decrease the need to build new ratepayer-funded energy generation that would increase energy prices and drive away businesses, especially industrial ones like manufacturing. A more efficient grid is a more resilient one, and some energy efficiency measures can be deployed as DERs to drive down peak demand without pushing the cost of a whole power plant or power station onto ratepayers. Finally, the energy efficiency industry primarily supports well-paying, blue collar jobs (2+ million of them) with demand in rural areas as well as cities. Energy efficiency is a high tech, blue collar, job-creating industry that empowers consumer choice and decreases the cost burden of government-mandated price-sharing.

In the red states of the Midwest, those are our new talking points. But the mission is the same, and so are the benefits.