Windmill man optimistic about the future

Green energy has been at the center of bitter political fights in recent years, but Tom Kiernan sees a glass half full — at the very least — when it comes to the future of the wind power industry in the United States.

He’s the new head of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), a job he began in late May, after 15 years at the helm of the National Parks Conservation Association.

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“There is bipartisan support for wind energy, and I look forward to growing it and making it more significant. There is a good base there,” he said in a recent interview on Capitol Hill, where AWEA members were visiting congressional offices. 

Dave Alberswerth, a senior policy adviser at The Wilderness Society who has worked with Kiernan, said AWEA’s board made a good decision hiring him to replace former CEO Denise Bode.

“He is very respected,” Alberswerth said. “He is a person that acquired a great deal of credibility over time for his professional demeanor, his command of the facts and the issues and his energy.”

Kiernan — an Arlington, Va., native and father of three — will need all those attributes as the wind industry faces a crossroads even as it enjoys major growth.

Wind provides nearly 5 percent of U.S. electricity and has been growing fast, accounting for 42 percent of the new U.S. power generation capacity added in 2012.

But Kiernan, a longtime conservation advocate and an outdoorsman who enjoys hiking and climbing, has come aboard as the industry fights for air inside the Capitol.

The industry hasn’t escaped Capitol Hill’s intensified partisanship in recent years, even as numerous Republicans from the farm belt, where wind production has taken off, and other regions remain in its corner.

On the same day Kiernan spoke to The Hill last week in a Senate office building cafeteria, House Republicans voted for deep cuts to Energy Department research and development spending for next-generation renewable technologies.

But the biggest and most consequential fight for the industry is over tax policy.

A short-term extension of tax credits the industry calls vital to continued growth barely squeaked through in the fiscal-cliff deal early this year. More broadly, green energy has become the stuff of intensifying partisan political fights.

“I think there is political, partisan tension on the Hill, and that appears to have grown in the last couple of years, but I am pleased with the degree of bipartisan support that we do have,” Kiernan said.

The last time the industry’s tax credit lapsed, in 2004, the number of new projects plummeted.

But the price tag for the credit, now in the billions of dollars, has mushroomed alongside the industry’s growth as more and more projects take advantage of it. That has made it a bigger target.

Recent years have brought brinkmanship over the credit’s extension and increasing discussion of how it may be phased out.

Kiernan did not discuss policy details but emphasized that the industry is seeking a less volatile policy landscape.

“My view for wind energy going forward is wind energy is proven, it is an extraordinarily affordable, [a] cost-effective, clean renewable energy source,” he said, noting that the costs of electricity generated from wind have been coming down.

“What we are looking for on Capitol Hill is to create a more stable, strong policy platform. While the wind industry has grown dramatically in the last number of years, it has done so in a somewhat inconsistent way with some years really busy years, some years less so,” Kiernan said.

Frank Maisano of Bracewell & Giuliani, which counts wind developers among its various energy clients, said one challenge Kiernan will confront is the varied viewpoints within the wind industry.

“I always think AWEA, and therefore Tom as it leader, will have to balance a wide range of members and a wide array of views, from more conservative utilities to idealistic developers to environmental allies who are sometimes overly optimistic,” said Maisano, a senior principal at the firm.

Maisano also said AWEA would benefit from a more muscular lobbying strategy and believes Kiernan is the right man for the job. “I have always thought AWEA needs to play in D.C. like a heavyweight,” Maisano said of the trade group, which was founded almost 40 years ago and now has a staff of roughly 60 and a budget of more than $21 million.

“They sometimes have not been able to do that because it was not in its personality. Tom is savvy enough to balance all of these sides and can still step with a heavier foot when necessary,” he said.

Kiernan, before joining the parks group, was a senior official in the Environmental Protection’s Agency’s air quality office under President George H. W. Bush.

AWEA, when announcing his hiring in April, included prepared statements of support for Kiernan from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and former GOP New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

Wind projects sometimes face opposition from conservationists concerned about bird mortality (a topic Kiernan calls “overblown”), new structures on scenic vistas and other resistance to the tall turbines.

Kiernan’s long background advocating for national parks means he comes to AWEA with deep ties to the conservation movement, which could help him navigate policy debates going forward.

“I have worked over my career to try and bring together business and the conservation community, to help bring together Republicans and Democrats to help find the common ground. I look forward to working very closely with the wind industry and with the conservation community, whether nationally or locally, in advancing a renewable resource that virtually all those in the environmental community strongly support,” he said.

“We need to ensure that any local environmental or siting impacts are minimized, avoided, mitigated, so I look forward to working with the conservation community to sort that through, so that wind energy can move as rapidly forward as possible,” Kiernan said.

The conservationist noted that a main motivation in his decision to join the trade group was jobs.

The industry accounts for more than 70,000 U.S. jobs and has more than 550 domestic manufacturing facilities, Kiernan said.

“Wind energy has created an extraordinary number of jobs here in the country during a challenging economic period,” he said.

Kiernan’s background gives him a somewhat unique perspective on a topic never far from battles over energy policy: climate change.

He’s seen it up close.

“Whether it is some parks up in Alaska that are clearly seeing increased temperatures, whether it is parks on the coast that are seeing increased flood inundations; whether it is places like the Great Smokies that are seeing shifts in vegetative patterns and migration patterns — absolutely the parks are affected by climate change — and joining AWEA is an opportunity to help advocate for a clean, affordable, renewable resource,” Kiernan said.