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February 9, 2016 | Beating Political Polarization: What the Environmental Movement Can Learn from Solar Energy

Solar energy is the poster-child of the new, environmentally friendly, economically feasible world of the 21st century. Lightning-fast technological innovation in the private sector and complementary government tax credits have brought about the rapid ascent of the low-impact energy source, much to the chagrin of oil and gas executives.

Less than 9 years ago, the New York Times worried solar would forever remain a “boutique energy” because of a dearth of federal R&D funding that instead went to the powerful coal, nuclear, and corn (ethanol) lobbies. Even without much financial help until the 2006 implementation of the federal investment tax credit (ITC) for solar energy, the cost of solar has fallen from $76.67/watt in 1977 to $.613/watt in 2014. Last year was particularly good to the solar energy market, with the U.S. seeing record solar installation in 2015. New commitments to renewables coming out of COP21 in Paris last December and the extension of the federal ITC were icing on the cake — everyone in the solar industry is sporting a rather sunny disposition for 2016. But not all environmentalists are feeling as positive as those with the solar panels.

Flip on the TV and all you see is red and blue. The 2016 election cycle is a prime diorama of the political polarization on environmental issues in America today. On no topic is that polarization more pronounced and vicious than climate change.

The polarization of environmental sentiment along party lines picked up pace in the early 2000s and culminated in the Tea Party Movement in 2010. During the 2008 presidential race, Senator John McCain was the loudest of many outspoken Republican advocates of climate action, calling for substantial greenhouse gas reductions. But just seven years later, the current political landscape is hard-pressed to produce a major Republican figure willing to go to bat for the climate. Those who were, like George Pataki and Lindsey Graham, are out of the running.

Yet even among the environmentally disinclined, deregulatory landscape of the 2016 Republican race, solar energy has a place — if not a big one — at the table in GOP candidates’ discussions of energy policy. An all-of-the-above energy strategy that includes solar development is supported by several Republican candidates including Carly Fiorina, Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Chris Christie, all of whom have largely avoided talking about climate change or deny it’s even happening.

To many in the environmental movement, solar is a hero energy because its impact is a miniscule fraction of that of coal and natural gas. But while a sense of environmental altruism may have motivated many engineers to refine and bring down the cost of solar equipment, it’s not a spread of tree-hugging fervor that has made solar the political aisle-hopper it is in the 2016 presidential race. It’s cost, certainly; but zoom out farther, and it’s words.

Nowhere is the role of words in the success of solar energy more evident than at the state level, where solar continues to win Republican support, despite the visible relationship between renewable energy and climate action. Arizona stands out most among many success stories.

Most states have an appointed PUC, or public utilities commission, that deals with all the electricity being produced in the state. But Arizona instead has something called the Arizona Corporate Commission, an elected five-member body (all-Republican starting in 2012) that oversees a wide range of business regulation issues in the state, including solar energy. The success of solar in Arizona – and all other Republican-led states where renewables face emphatic opposition from private utility companies – is thanks to framing.

It was Barry Goldwater Jr. — the former Presidential contender’s son, also a conservative — who formed TUSC (Tell Utilities Solar Won’t be Killed) in Arizona, and gained a significant conservative following who took the steps of the Commission building when the private utilities were duking it out. Goldwater called it “un-Republican” and “un-American” to take away “energy choice.”

And there it was. Barry Goldwater, Jr. had tapped into the power of words — Republican words.

It’s around these words that entire bodies of political support are built in other states like Florida and even the Carolinas, where solar energy policies have been effectively framed as Republican in disposition. Highlighting certain pro-solar policies as essentially tax breaks, or pointing out the implications of an anti-solar policy for a consumer’s "freedom-to-choose," like Goldwater did in Arizona, is a rhetorical choice that resonates with Republican voters and, in winning their support, has implications for the entire United States energy market the health of the global climate.

The success of solar energy in most states and even at the level of federal government has very little to do with "saving the planet," even if that’s something many solar energy customers are decidedly interested in doing. Most solar policies were passed in conservative states because they resonate with existing Republican ideology, and because the way they were framed recasts renewable energies as something apart from the polarized realm of environmentalism.

This is the lesson the rest of the environmental movement needs to learn in today’s climate of extreme left-right division on climate change and sustainability.

Sticking to the party line on the urgent need for climate action is simply no longer a viable strategy. Even if a Democrat is in the White House next year, gerrymandering practices ensure that Republicans will likely control Congress at least through 2023. Many argue that what the climate needs most right now from America is a price on carbon, and if any major environmental legislation is going to be passed, it’s clear that strong bipartisan support is necessary.

That brings us to the power of words. It’s immense, and it has everything to do with the rise of solar energy in America. It’s been done for the sun, and it can be done again.                                                

 

Caroline Saunders is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Caroline is a senior at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, studying Creative Writing and Environmental Studies.