Republicans need to embrace renewables — on their terms
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During the last presidential match-up between Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama, I was asked by a former George W. Bush administration colleague whether it was possible to say anything nice about renewable energy. As a regular participant on energy industry calls with the Romney campaign, I dutifully called headquarters for the official position and was told that the campaign supported free-market competition for renewable energy. Fast forward four years. I'm still having a hard time finding a Republican who will embrace any form of renewable energy.

On one hand, I get it. There is heartburn over subsidies, including concerns about federal dollars being used to support a largely private-sector enterprise that the majority of states have mandated. As well, our national debt is $19 trillion and counting. Not the best time to be looking for budget items to fund and defend.

On the other hand, there's the reality of a shift in public opinion and a changing energy landscape. A recent Gallup poll showed that 73 percent of Americans and 51 percent of Republicans support the development of renewable energy. It reasons, then, that Republican candidates who oppose renewables are not only out of step with general election voters, but with their own party. If it's an issue the electorate cares about and supports, Republicans need to recognize it and understand the evolving profile of our 21st-century energy mix. If not, they risk the issue being a factor in November, especially with general-election voters. This is especially important for vulnerable Senate candidates who herald from states that Obama won big in the 2012 election.

Another finding from the same Gallup poll that's worth mentioning is that support for producing oil and gas production has dropped, although, historically, support has closely tracked price. When the price at the pump is high, support for production goes up; when the price is low, support for production diminishes. If nothing else, the poll showcases the public's sensitivity to price.

Where does that leave us?

First, like every other sector in the energy industry, siting and transmission are a major issue. A good example of this is Clean Line Energy Partners' Plains and Eastern project, designed to deliver 4,000 megawatts of clean power from the Oklahoma Panhandle to the mid-South and Southeast. After six years, the U.S. Department of Energy issued a Record of Decision finding the $2.5 billion project "as proposed will serve the public interest by facilitating renewable energy development, stimulating economic development, generating revenues for needed public investment, and doing so while minimizing impacts to landowners and the natural environment." Yet, there is substantial opposition in states along the proposed route, including from some of the Public Utility Commissions (PUCs), state legislators who are proposing measures that would make approval more difficult, and from landowners. It's the classic "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) syndrome. As such, it is critical that a timely, reasonable path forward is identified when building infrastructure projects.

Second, we need to level the financial playing field for renewable energy companies and allow them to be financed through master limited partnerships (MLPs). MLPs allow a company to sell shares, but to pass earnings directly to investors without a corporate tax burden, and leave the partners to pay tax on their income and avoid double taxation. The advantages of MLPs are clear: They can raise capital by selling stock on an IRS-approved exchange and create liquidity from selling shares. The IRS also defines qualifying income to include all manner of activities related to the production, processing and transportation of oil, natural gas and coal — but not renewable energy.

There are many more policies that can be tweaked, but the challenge for Republican candidates and policymakers is elemental. They need to move the renewable energy conversation beyond a discussion about subsidies. Having said that, one need only glance through the various papers written on renewable energy deployment to see that the industry tends to lead with a subsidy request. However, shame on Republicans for letting others define the terms of the debate.

The other issue-framing challenge for Republicans is not to equate support for renewables as an attack on fossil fuels. Too often, Republicans hear "renewable energy" and feel compelled to immediately defend traditional energy sources.

America's energy mix is in constant evolution and that should be acknowledged, embraced and debated.

Several years ago, the GOP coined the phrase "all of the above" when talking about energy sources. We need to return to that. To paraphrase my former colleague, it's okay to say something nice about renewable energy.

Maddox has held several senior positions at the Department of Energy. He is a fellow with the American Action Forum and a consultant to the Livingston Group.