December 16, 2008

Galvanizing Congress to move renewable energy forward

On December 5th, the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) hosted its annual Phase II meeting in Washington D.C. in the U.S. House of Representatives Cannon Caucus Room. Its theme this year was "The Next Presidency and Congress." Distinguished speakers addressed the state of renewable energy policy today, presented a range of policy options, and made recommendations for the new administration’s policy framework.

There was a deep sense of purpose and commitment in the room as luminary after luminary spoke of the challenges and opportunities before us. There was also a palpable sense of urgency due to the country's economic crises - as auto industry bailout talks were taking place in another room of the building.

Archived videos of the six hours of speeches are available online. Michael Eckhart (ACORE President) marked the growth in significance of this 7th annual convening of an ACORE Phase II meeting - which formed in 2001 one week before 9/11. John Geesman (former California Energy Commissioner) introduced Dan Reicher who is the Director or Climate Change and Environmental Initiatives for Their venture makes investments and advocates policy in the areas of climate change and energy, global development, and global health. General Wesley Clark made an impromptu appearance and speech on national security and ACORE's role in effecting positive change in America's energy independence.

The keynote address was delivered by Iowa Governor Chet Culver who avered that thirty years ago Iowa was ranked 49th in energy production by state. Since that time Iowa has become a net exporter of energy thanks to the diligence and innovation of Iowa state government, academia, and farmers to build a renewable fuels industry. "If you can't get pumped about this opportunity, then you are not 'pumpable,'" he said. He gave way to Jeff Broin, President of Poet Industries - now the nation's largest ethanol producer, who talked about the technology innovations taking place at their corn plants to reduce their carbon footprint, higher per acre crop yields as a panacea for global economic malaise, and Poet's construction of the Liberty, Iowa Plant that will create cellulosic ethanol using corn cobs as feedstock.

Senator Tom Daschle gave a detailed analysis of biomass conversion technologies - the allied food, fiber, fertilizer, and fuel impacts and the nine policies that should be pursued by Capitol Hill and the administration to advance them. He was followed by former Director of the CIA Jim Woolsey who talked about coupling biofuels production with the development of flex-fuel, plug-in hybrids like the experimental car he drives. In tandem, these two technology sectors can deflate the strategic value of oil - which is effecting the largest transfer of wealth in human history while making the U.S. and freedom-loving people more and more vulnerable.

N.Y. Times columnist Thomas Friedman then made a memorable address that was a walkthrough of his book "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" urging Congress to help launch and enable a Energy Technology revolution. His conclusion was that it wasn't the government's job to bailout a sick and ailing economy. It was their job to set the price points - whether through carbon taxes or cap and trade or other mechanisms - that make clean, renewable technologies economically viable.

The afternoon sessions focused on policies that were needed to help private industry finance Electric Power and the scale-up of renewable energy and summations by ACORE leaders advising the "Next President and Congress."

Below is an announcement from ACORE about the immediate impact of the meeting on negotiations concerning the economic stimulus bill.

Impact of Speeches at ACORE’s Phase II National Policy Conference
December 5, 2008

Congressional sentiment about how to deal with renewable energy tax incentives as part of a national economic stimulus bill may have changed in the past 48 hours as a result of speeches that were given by financial leaders at a renewable energy policy conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday and by the continuing effort of other renewable energy leaders.

The American Council On Renewable Energy held its 7th annual national policy conference, entitled “Phase II of Renewable Energy in America: The Next Presidency and Congress” yesterday in the Cannon Caucus Room in Washington, DC. The event held a packed room of 350 policy experts and was webcast to over 4,200 others around the world.

Keynote speeches by Iowa Governor Chet Culver, former Senator and Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Retired General Wesley Clark, former Director of Intelligence Jim Woolsey, and award-winning journalist Tom Friedman ignited the conference with a sense of determination to push the policy agenda forward on renewable energy in the new Congress and Administration.

However, the highest-impact speeches seemed to come from four top-tier financiers who came to Washington to speak about the urgent and near-crisis need to amend and refine the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind power and other renewable energy generators, and for the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar power.

Prior to the conference, the word from Congressional staff was that there will be no tax provisions in the upcoming economic stimulus bill, to avoid slowdowns in tax committees. This would put the renewable electricity markets in a decline just as the nation is looking for economic growth and jobs.

But, after hearing the finance speeches, Congress may have turned around on the question, as there is reportedly talk now of getting the refinements into the stimulus package.

“It is absolutely urgent that this be done,” said John Cavalier, Managing Partner of Hudson Clean Energy Capital. He outlined a set of refinements including making the tax credits refundable, able to be carried back ten years, allowed in lease finance structures, and applicable to manufacturing equipment to support new factories for wind turbine components and solar cells.

These changes are necessitated by the financial crisis which has reduced the availability of credit, caused the number of tax equity investors to be reduced, and increased the cost of capital across the board, according to Tracy Wolstencroft, Managing Director at Goldman Sachs.

“We are not asking for any new money,” said Kevin Walsh, Managing Director at GE Energy Financial Services. ”We are asking for technical refinements of tax credit rules that will allow funds to flow that Congress has already approved. This will open up the availability of equity capital for renewable energy projects, back to what was contemplated with the tax credits were passed originally. It is vitally important that this get done immediately to protect jobs in 2009.”

The fourth finance speaker at the conference was Michael Ware, Managing Director of Good Energies, and one of the few in finance today who served in the original Federal Energy Office in the 1970s.
“Our nation needs to back up its commitment to clean energy by extending the incentives for a longer time, and by continuing to refine the incentive rules to match market conditions. Congress could not have foreseen the extent of the credit crisis when they passed the PTC and ITC in September. No one is to blame. We are using our collective expertise to suggest how the Congress can relatively easily amend the rules to keep capital flowing into the U.S. market, keep our companies producing, and keep Americans employed. And again, this requires no additional money, just refinements to how the tax credits can be used – credits that Congress has already passed.”

Reports are coming in to ACORE from the Hill this morning that, as a result of the presentations at the Phase II conference and the work of other renewable energy leaders, there is a new good-faith intention to get the renewable energy provisions into the stimulus package to protect jobs in the sector. One lobbyist reported to ACORE that: ‘The message was heard by the staff, many of whom were in the conference or watching on the webcast.”
“We are very pleased by the quality of the Phase II conference, the motivation that came form the keynote speakers, and the immediate impact that our financial speakers seem to have had on public policy thinking in Washington. ACORE’s role is educating public officials about the issues, and it seems to have been accomplished in this case," said ACORE President, Michael Eckhart.

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