What the clean power industry needs: more lobbying

Is the clean power industry not doing enough to win political support in the nation’s capital? While Solyndra has gotten flack for its significant lobbying efforts, the reality is that the industry should do more, not less.

Neil Auerbach, managing partner of Hudson Clean Energy Partners, told us at a clean power conference in San Francisco that the industry hasn’t done a proper job of convincing lawmakers on both sides of the aisle of the importance of clean power for the country’s economy.

“One big mistake we made in the industry is focusing too much on one political party and not on bipartisanship. So I think we need to articulate themes that are more inclusive,” said Auerbach at the Renewable Energy Finance Forum on Monday. “The national gas industry is doing much better than we are in front of Democrats and Republicans.”

Auerbach’s comment is a good reminder about how our political system works and what the clean power industry needs to do to be heard more loudly. More lobbying efforts are critical now, particuarly in light of the fallout of the bankrupt Solyndra and moves by Republicans and Democrats to cut budgets. Auerbach himself testified at a House Committee on Ways and Means last week and argued for why investing in renewable energy is a smart thing to do for the government.

The importance of gaining bipartisan support is not a revelation, of course. Any trade groups and company executives know that is a good thing to have. At a solar power conference before last November’s election, Republican strategist Mary Matalin urged the attendees not to overlook Republicans and learn to pitch their messages to conservatives.

Gaining Republicans’ support has been tough, particularly when policies that will boost cleantech development and deployment have come from legislation that jived more with Democrats’ core beliefs and approaches to stimulating the economy. Now the bankruptcy of Solyndra has given Republicans the ammunition to attack the stimulus package that is filled with cleantech money and to undermine the growth of an emerging industry that threatens the existence of the traditional energy establishment.

Solyndra has drawn criticism for spending a few million dollars on lobbying  for federal legislation that eventually helped it secure a $535 million loan guarantee to build a factory. But as Bryan Walsh from Time Magazine pointed out, Solyndra’s lobbying effort is nothing unusual and doesn’t deserve the tsk-tsking from critics. The solar company also had gotten over $1 billion private money from investors including those who are allies of both parties.

The Solar Energy Industries Association spent more than $1.6 million on lobbying in 2009, according to Center for Responsive Politics. The American Wind Energy Association spent nearly $5 million in 2009. The oil and gas industry spent at least $175 million during the same year.

Ideologically, Americans distaste the idea of hiring lobbyists and spending money to gain political influence. Yet the reality is that companies need to fight for the attention of lawmakers. Judging from the critical comments from Republicans on the House energy committee, which is bent on finding faults not just with the Solyndra’s loan guarantee but the loan guarantee program itself, it’s clear that the clean power industry has a way to go in gaining a broader political support and fighting the fossil fuel energy industry.