Republican wins in the US Senate bode ill for renewable energy

In Tuesday’s election, the Republican Party gained at least seven seats in the U.S. Senate to bring it to a majority position. The party also increased its majority in the U.S. House of Representative, giving it control of both houses of the U.S. legislature.

While this new political landscape will have an impact on energy legislation, environmental groups have pointed out that it may not have as large an impact on clean energy policies, many of which are being pursued directly by the Obama Administration without congress.

A key area of concern for the solar industry has been the 30% solar investment tax credit (ITC), which is set to reduce at the end of 2016. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) announced an effort to extend the ITC at the Solar Power International trade show in Las Vegas in October, and Friends of the Earth (FOE) says that this changing landscape complicates that task.

“Obviously formerly Majority Leader (Harry) Reed was very supportive of tax credits for renewable energy,” FOE Climate and Energy Program Director Benjamin Schreiber told pv magazine. “I don’t think this is a death knell for the ITC, but it makes it more difficult for sure.”

Schreiber notes that past extensions of renewable energy tax credits were part of bundled changes to the tax code, which makes it harder to read any individual politician’s support for specific policies. However, he also notes that many House Republicans have been vocal in their opposition to renewable energy subsidies.

SEIA has stressed that it plans to work across the aisle with Republicans and right-wing groups. But while some of these groups have come out in favor of solar at the state level, Republicans in Congress have remained overwhelmingly opposed to support for renewable energy.

Republicans have also targeted President Obama’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases through the Environmental Protection Agency, but here the Obama Administration remains in control.

“Anything that Congress is going to do to undermine that rule from moving forward is going to have to be signed off on by the president,” explains Schreiber. He describes past efforts to derail the policy as "political theater".

Additionally, a Republican majority in the Senate gives the party greater control over budget issues, and Schreiber expects them to use this to reduce funding for clean energy programs both at the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense.

Perhaps the greatest concern is that a Republican majority will further tilt the playing field against renewables by increasing support for fossil fuel production.

“We were in a situation where before we could actually talk about ending the incentives for fossil fuel companies, and I expect congress to consider ramping them up,” warns Schreiber.

In particular, the expected incoming chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has been a strong supporter of the coal and oil industries.