The US’ Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is a nearly miraculous success, setting the world’s second biggest economy – and polluter – on a path that could lead to the country cutting its pollution footprint by 40%. In the battle against global climate disruption, you don’t often get wins like it. Doubtless a good number of cleantechers seeing the IRA get through Congress recently drank some champagne, put their feet up and took the weekend off.
But now the long-haul work begins. Clean economy technologies must deploy at a massive scale, with unprecedented speed despite growing chokepoints such as permitting, mineral refining, transmission and storage.
The fossil fuel lobby, on the other hand, knows the IRA is a $370bn plan to displace it. It also knows its companies have decades of practice weaponising government influence peddling and disinformation to block threats to their market share and profits. ExxonMobil isn’t planning to passively transition itself into some grid storage company. It – and companies of its ilk – are going to fight it like hell.
For clean economy companies, successfully deploying renewables will include constantly making our case at scale to investors, regulators and average citizens. And that entails anticipating what the fossil fuel lobby can do to fetter this massive shift, then take pre-emptive steps to make attacks harder.
The US Department of Energy’s loan guarantee programme (LGP) underwrote $535m in financing to Solyndra, a thin-film solar company that went bankrupt in 2011. Solyndra’s technology was obviated by market forces, but its crash was followed by an FBI raid on the company’s offices, several Congressional investigations trumpeting a “scandal”, and what an estimated $800mn in attack ads connecting Solyndra’s failure to then President Barak Obama’s re-election effort.
All the Solyndra noise was concentrated in right-wing media, cratering support for renewables among white conservative men
Fox News alone devoted its prime-time focus to Solyndra 84 times in a nine-month period – triple the coverage of five competing networks combined. The discussion relentlessly focused on why “green energy” was an economic loser, existing only because closet socialists propped it up with taxpayer money.
What was the damage from the Solyndra non-scandal? Not a single person spent a minute of time in front of a judge. Company losses were 1.6% of the total lending by the LGP, which had a 97.7% repayment rate. Three years after Solyndra’s default, interest rate payments from the program put it $30m in the black for taxpayers. Today it nets $500m a year for the US treasury. Solar power went on to drop costs so much that it’s now the cheapest form of energy on earth.
But the phony controversy’s real achievement was political damage. All that noise was concentrated in right-wing media, cratering support for renewables among white conservative men, from the mid-90% approval in 2010 to the mid-40% in 2012. The Solyndra case pulled renewables into the US political culture wars, making it impossible to achieve bipartisan support for pro-clean energy policies. Ten years later, that legacy’s still with us. Not a single Republican Senator supported the IRA, but they’re all staunch defenders of maintaining massive policy support for mature fossil fuel companies.
Fast-forward to the present. Have the incumbents changed their response to market threats? Plenty of evidence suggests they have not:
· Utility First Energy paid $61m in bribes to state politicians to engineer a taxpayer bailout of First Energy’s failing coal and nuclear plants.
· Fossil fuel giant Koch Industries has spent hundreds of millions of dollars manipulating US politics to support fossil fuels.
· Oil & gas majors are pushing states to deregulate burning single-use plastics under the moniker of “chemical recycling”.
· ExxonMobil modified its industry statement to the UN climate treaty talks so it avoided - in its words - “creating a tie between our advocacy/engagements and the Paris Agreement [that] could create a potential commitment to advocate on the Paris Agreement goals”.
A full list of recent proof points could take up every web page on Recharge’s website, but you get the idea. The point is that clean energy can only fulfil the potential new US policy has created if we deploy commercially and in the court of public opinion.
The IRA is going to move a lot of money through creaky government bureaucracies. There will be inefficiencies and failures. And there’s a whole ecosystem of fossil fuel-funded organisations already working to paint this landmark policy change as costly, wasteful and “picking winners and losers".
Solyndra was a testament to the ability of incumbent sectors to use small flaws to distort big realities. If you care about your company’s success, its ability to scale, and having a liveable planet, we can’t let our opponents run the same play. Because if we don’t define our efforts, they will.
· Mike Casey is president of US clean-tech communications agency Tigercomm