Depoliticising Clean Energy: An interview with Landon Stevens of the Conservative Energy Network (CEN)

Depoliticising Clean Energy: An interview with Landon Stevens of the Conservative Energy Network (CEN)
Landon Stevens. Courtesy of The Conservative Energy Network (CEN)

The Conservative Energy Network (CEN) is a non-profit coalition with deeply conservative members encompassing grassroots family members, agriculturalists, business people, politicians and faith community representatives who believe in the future and benefits of clean energy from the perspectives of energy independence, energy security, environmental conservation, affordable energy prices and job creation. It works closely with states across the US aiming to remove the politics from clean energy discussions and instead promote clean energy solutions with these important perspectives in mind. In this way, it is helping to educate policymakers and the general public as well as becoming involved in deployment of clean energy infrastructure and the establishment of new organisations in the states that help to promote a clean energy future.

After multiple years of being run by just two people, the Conservative Energy Network (CEN) has expanded to include a director of policy and advocacy, Landon Stevens, who has held numerous positions within the energy space and looks forward to supporting CEN’s state leaders in their efforts to advance clean energy solutions.

REM talked to CEN’s new Director of Policy and Advocacy, Landon Stevens, to discuss these issues in greater detail.

Can you give me a bit of background about yourself and the Conservative Energy Network?

I joined the Conservative Energy Network a few weeks ago, particularly around the time we went into lockdown, and that’s been an interesting timing and shift there. I come from, most recently, working for the public utility regulator in Arizona, the Arizona Corporation Commission. I worked for two different commissioners there. Prior to that, I worked for a couple of think tanks that worked on energy and environment issues at Strata Policy in Utah and the Institute for Energy Research in Washington DC. Going back further than that, I also used to work on political campaigns. I stopped doing that in the 2012 cycle.

As far as the Conservative Energy Network, we’re an organisation that now works in 21 different states, where we have groups working on the ground. We try to work with conservative candidates and policy makers to try and change the narrative around renewable energy, to help them understand the economics, conservation and security benefits that come from clean renewable energy.

Being a conservative network, do you mention climate change or do you tactfully set that one aside?

For what we’re doing, we don’t obviously ignore the environmental benefits of what we’re doing in terms of renewable energy, but we just think that the discussion goes beyond that. When you drop immediately into that bucket, it becomes more of a political argument than an economic or reliability argument, and so we lose the ability sometimes to talk with people about the other benefits, so I would say that we’re kind of climate agnostic. We all hold our personal beliefs, but for being effective working with conservative lawmakers, we usually go for the economic, conservation, security benefits, jobs, investment, those types of issues.

I’ve heard that currently most of the momentum in America with regard to clean energy is coming from the states, not the government. Is that an accurate picture and how is it working out?

We think that is the case, especially we’ve seen that shift during the Trump administration. It’s reverted more to a Federalist approach, which is good from our perspective, just as we think that individuals should have choice, on these issues, and how they get their energy and how they use their energy, we think this can benefit states, and especially for our organisation, that’s the kind of the way we’re designed intentionally, so that we can engage in these individual discussions at the state level. The solutions might not work out exactly the same, depending on where you’re at, but we always keep trying to move that ball forward, moving towards using clean energy.

What kind of relationship do you have with the government? How much do they actually get involved with clean energy issues on the ground?

I would say recently there’s been a lot less top-down involvement in these things, but the Department of Energy plays a big role, and they’re focusing more on the R&D side, how we encourage emerging technologies and innovations, whether it’s in battery storage or these different kinds of areas, but generally I would say that over the last four years the Federal Government hasn’t been as engaged on the ground, so when we’re looking at clean energy, we’re looking at them more as a state-by-state approach, which takes a lot more work, for advocates, but helps to take these discussions and frame them in a more relevant local way.

In which clean energy sector is America strongest in at the moment? Two candidates, I imagine, being solar and offshore wind?

I would say definitely wind and solar. The Midwest, very wind-heavy, Texas, Iowa, those kind of states. Solar is definitely expanding, especially in California. Really, all over the country, we’re seeing wind and solar grow, and now it’s rapidly emerging this discussion of offshore wind, and how do we engage in that and really move that forward, is coming to the forefront as well. The argument around energy efficiency, and implementing those kinds of resources, we see those as being just as important as how we generate power, can we also be more conservative in the way that we’re using power, to make an economic difference. So we really push for stronger energy efficiency measures as well.

One of the things that has been problematic in the UK is the question of how to make building heating and cooling renewable. What kind of progress is being made in the US around that?

We’re definitely seeing a shift towards distributed generation, especially on the solar side, so a lot of businesses and homes want to generate their own electricity, to power their own structures and things. There are policies in place, a little more general, to encourage us to meet our peak demand during the day, from more renewables, more clean energy sources. I think as more storage comes online, we can pinpoint exactly where we’re using it in terms of heating or cooling, but I think a lot of that for us goes back to energy efficiency. We want to make buildings more efficient and make sure that we’re incorporating new technologies that help us to become more efficient on that front as well.

Which states would you say are leading the drive towards more clean energy?

It’s really all across the board. Everyone seems to be moving in that direction but at different speeds. Texas has been a great example of when you free up the market and you let competition move in, how quickly renewables can expand. For the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of market-driven renewables in that state. In other states, especially in the North East – New York, Massachusetts, you’re seeing that more as state-government driven. Iowa just made some significant movement towards renewables in this last legislative session. Places like Michigan and Minnesota, for instance, has been moving on this. I think every state is, in some way, honestly moving towards that. We’ve turned a corner, where people were into their corners and either be 100 percent for renewables or 100 percent for oil and gas, and now we’re starting to see where people are asking “Okay, how do we move forward?” Some states are going to want to do that more quickly and make more direct investment in that. Some of those walls are coming down now, and so where we play a role is engaging legislators on “here are the options” and how we can help them move forward and make them feel comfortable in moving forward towards this. And we’re really seeing that now all across the country.

Some states historically, have been pretty dependent on fossil fuels, particularly coal, I’m thinking of states like West Virginia in particular, so how do you go about trying to move those more coal-based states over to a clean energy position?

I think for us, really we just talk about the benefits. The benefits are pretty well known. Five to ten years ago, there was more cloudiness around the economics. So with prices for solar and wind coming down as far as they have as quickly as they have, that’s a much tougher sell for homeowners. Homeowners want energy to be affordable, and at the same time they want it to be clean. Not so much from the global climate argument, but just from a neighbourhood health, we’re talking local impacts, immediately, so it’s not so much a question of do we transition away from coal, but more “how and when?” For instance, in Arizona, where I am, we still have quite a bit of coal still on the system, but that will retire naturally, probably by 2040. So what we’re talking about with lawmakers and advocates around the state is, well, do we look at pushing that up a bit or do we plan for what’s after 2040? So the investments we’re making today – noone’s building a new coal plant. Noone’s advocating for new coal plants, it’s just how long do we hang on to the ones that we have.

How is the US clean energy sector dealing with the current coronavirus situation?

So far it’s been good. We, like everyone else, recognise the essential nature of maintaining power in the grid, at all times, so a lot of stock and resources have been placed behind keeping that running. What we at CEN are trying to have a discussion around at this time is, with this unique situation, are there things that we need to consider for the future? That maybe have been brought more front-of-mind because of this....There has been a large amount of discussion here about putting huge sums of money to work around the economy, in terms of rebuilding infrastructure. What we want to see is [a discussion around] what does that infrastructure look like? Are we going to rebuild the roads and bridges that we have or are we going to look to the future and maybe use these investments to transition to a new energy economy? Where we’re making sure the grid is more resilient in the future by encouraging distributed generation, by adding energy storage, by embracing new technologies. We really want to make sure we’re having that discussion, as opposed to just rushing in and throwing money at the problem.

How do we really structure this in a way that will benefit all Americans, not just for the 12-18 months term, but for the next 20-30 years? I think there will be more discussion about that. We’re seeing that in this stimulus package discussion around how we go about discussing these kinds of issues. That will be an interesting discussion I think, in the coming months.

One thing that is important to us at CEN is really important to help people understand that clean energy really shouldn’t be this political wedge that’s been used for so long. The reason we try to do a lot of polling in our organisation is that we don’t feel that people on the ground, the everyday person, really cares about the politics. What they care about is how they power their lives, feed their family? So when we go about polling, we ask them “Would you like more choice in what kind of electricity you have access to?” 79 percent of people across the spectrum say yes. Even among Republicans, where there’s this perception that they are anti-renewable and anti-green, when we ask them “would you vote for elected officials who support clean energy like solar and wind?” 59 percent say yes and 39 percent say no. Independents, who are becoming more and more a large part of the electorate, that number is even higher at 79 percent to 11 percent.

So we’re trying to have these discussions with lawmakers, saying “listen, it’s not about party lines here. There are real tangible benefits from increasing the use of renewables. I would argue we’re showing you the data, the information behind it, you should be supporting these things. Not for a political reason, but just from a functional perspective, the benefits of renewables in this new economy that we have. That’s important to us and so we’re just trying to engage in a meaningful discussion that helps people understand there shouldn’t be this stark red-blue divide when we talk about these things. Everyone understands the value of energy, and the discussions around that are really changing. We need to talk about them deliberately, we need them to be productive.

For additional information:

Conservative Energy Network (CEN)

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