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The standard political color code for renewable energy holds that green mixes with blue but clashes with red. A detailed look at local realities says otherwise.
Enersection, a new company based in Houston specializing in data-driven insights on the US energy system, has presented them in compelling charts and other graphics (you can access its site here). Bloomberg Opinion partnered with co-founder Jeff Davies to take a deep dive into the energy and emissions landscape at the congressional district level, using data from the Energy Information Administration’s monthly electricity report (EIA 860-M).
The picture that emerges will probably surprise you.
The House minority leader and likely Republican speaker-in-waiting, Kevin McCarthy, has complained that Democrats prefer to leave US oil and gas resources in the ground, even if it means begging for “batteries from China.”
Nothing particularly earth-shattering there. What’s interesting, though, is that a lot of those begged-for batteries look set to land in California’s 23rd Congressional District, represented by McCarthy. Indeed, geolocating the EIA data shows that his district ranks No. 1 in the nation for planned and operating grid-battery projects. McCarthy’s district also ranks first for planned and operating utility-scale solar capacity and second when you combine wind, solar and batteries. That is one green deep-red district.
McCarthy’s district captures a broad disconnect between facts on the ground and political identities when it comes to green energy.
Moving further to the right, there is Colorado’s 3rd District, represented by Lauren Boebert. In January 2021, she responded to the US re-entry into the Paris Agreement by tweeting that she works “for the people of Pueblo, not the people of Paris.” Ironic, really, since Pueblo, one of the biggest cities in her district, has a 100% renewable electricity target and is emerging as a regional clean energy hub. Overall, Boebert’s district ranks 16th of the 435 districts for planned renewable energy capacity.
Elsewhere in Congress and in Colorado is Diana DeGette, the Democratic representative of the state’s 1st District and chair of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigation. At just 23 megawatts, her district barely registers in terms of planned and operating solar, wind and battery capacity. Meanwhile, DeGette’s fellow Democrat Kathy Castor, who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, represents Florida’s solidly blue 14th District — which ranks 354th in the nation.
Enersection’s detailed district-level graphics are accessible here for desktop users. On just about any metric you care to look at, the green transition’s physical assets are more often found on red ground than on blue.
The most obvious reason for this is the ground itself.
Wind offers the best example. The best place to put up turbines is where there’s lots of open space and the wind blows really hard. Just 10 states roughly between the Mississippi River and the Rockies account for 80% of US onshore wind-power potential, and that region skews red: Seventy percent of the House districts in those states have Republican representatives.(1)
Rural and semirural districts offer more open, and cheaper, spaces to site electricity infrastructure than do the urban and suburban areas that tend to vote blue. Even within states that tilt blue, wind capacity tends to be built in districts with Republican representatives. Of the top 15 districts for existing and planned wind capacity in states won by Joe Biden in 2020, 13 are red.
Using the Bloomberg CityLab Congressional Density Index, Enersection mapped the location of green energy projects to House districts, segmented by type. Rural and rural-suburban areas dominate for solar and, especially, wind projects. Batteries, with greater variability in terms of scale and application, are more evenly distributed.
McCarthy’s district centers on Bakersfield, Kern County, California’s oil capital. To the east lies the Tehachapi area, cradle of the state’s wind-power industry, and the solar plants of the Mojave Desert. So the 23rd is simultaneously a hub for renewables and for fossil fuels. Indeed, in his first two congressional sessions, McCarthy sponsored bills to subsidize wind and solar power. In addition, because it hosts several large natural-gas-fired power plants and fuel-processing sites, the district ranks among the top 40 nationwide on greenhouse-gas emissions from industrial facilities.
Some tweet-defying complexity there, and this extends across the country. Whether it be planned solar, wind or battery capacity, 21, 21 and 15 of the top 25 congressional districts in the country, respectively, are Republican. At the same time, 20 of the 25 districts with the highest greenhouse-gas emissions from industrial sites — which collectively account for fully one-third of the national total — are also Republican. The vast majority of those relate to coal-fired power plants, usually found far from downtowns.
Perhaps US policymaking on green energy is not so much colorblind as willfully blind. “The rocks, the wind and the sun do not belong to political parties; the people who live there do,” says Kevin Book of ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington-based analysis firm.
As much as green energy and emissions now form a wedge issue between blue and red America, the data show a much more purple reality. For one thing, Democratic representatives pushing for green stimulus dollars are often implicitly directing them toward red districts, because that’s where a lot of stuff will actually be built. Republicans decrying renewables as unreliable are often rhetorically at odds with a growing business in their home locales.
All this takes on added importance in the wake of Biden’s suddenly revived clean-technology stimulus package via the proposed Inflation Reduction Act. While its passage would rely on a strictly blue budget reconciliation process, Republicans have at least one reason to (quietly) cheer it on: Much of the money would be spent in the areas they represent. Applying benchmark estimates of capital costs for wind, solar and battery projects from Bloomberg NEF and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to planned capacity implies a $107 billion investment opportunity — almost four-fifths of it in red districts.(2)
“The solar industry wants the same things the oil industry does,” says Book, pointing to such things as expedited permitting and lower taxes. With green energy sprouting readily in red soil and growing a new constituency, that alignment of interests should someday overtake the discord of ideology.
More from other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• The Surprising Places Where All-Electric Dominates: Justin Fox
• Rich-Poor Divide on Clean Power Is Getting Wider: David Fickling
• The GOP’s Climate Plan Forgets About the Climate: Liam Denning
(1) Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.
(2) This assumes 18, 56 and 16 gigawatts of planned wind, solar and battery capacity at respective estimated capital costs of $1.58, $1.04 and $1.20 per watt. Solar and wind costs are for utility-scale tracking and onshore projects, respectively, as per Bloomberg NEF estimates for the first half of 2022. Battery costs are for a five-hour system, as per NREL’s “Storage Technology Modeling Input Data Report”.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. A former investment banker, he was editor of the Wall Street Journal’s Heard on the Street column and a reporter for the Financial Times’s Lex column.
Jeff Davies is co-founder of Enersection, a platform for data-driven visual energy insights. He formerly invested in the energy sector as a fund manager.
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