Q&A: Minnesota conservatives want to take ‘culture war’ out of energy

David Strom leads the Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum.

David Strom leads the Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum.

A group of prominent Minnesota conservatives have formed the Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum (MnCEF) in order to reshape the debate over clean energy policy.

The nonprofit plans to focus less on global warming and support for fossil fuels and more on developing a roadmap for moving in a clean energy direction.

“We really need to have a conservative policy debate about how to shape the energy future with the new technology available now,” said David Strom, MnCEF’s project director.

To that end, the organization captured the support and involvement of former state Senate majority leader and small business owner Amy Koch; GOP Sen. John Pederson; St. Cloud State University economics professor King Banaian; Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference; Ben Gerber, executive director of the Minnesota Renewable Energy Tracking System; and several others.

Both Michigan and Ohio have similar conservative clean-energy focused organizations.

Strom, 51, has been involved in conservative Minnesota policy circles for decades, first coming into the limelight as the head of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, an advocacy group lobbying for limited government and lower taxes. In the past few years he’s worked on several campaigns for Republican candidates, including Tom Emmer’s successful run for the U.S. House.

MnCEF offers a Statement of Principles on its website which give a nod to the potential for distributed generation and choices for consumers. The last principle reads: “We believe that the renewable energy industry can, does, and will contribute to Minnesota’s economic growth. We also believe that it is in our economic interest to pursue the goal of leading the technological revolution in energy production.”

The Energy Foundation and other funders provided grants for MnCEF to begin its work, Strom said.

He spoke to Midwest Energy News about the goals for MnCEF. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Midwest Energy News: How do conservatives view energy in today’s balkanized political environment?

Strom: We’re always arguing about whether global warming is the huge threat. We’ve taken our eye off the ball – technology is moving forward, there are new possibilities, we could in the midst of a sweeping clean energy revolution – rather than depending on a status quo situation we don’t particularly care for anyway.

What do you mean by status quo?

Energy is a regulated monopoly, it’s not something someone who likes free markets should be all that interested in.

What’s your pitch to counteract the conservative way of thinking?

Conservatives don’t buy into the philosophy that the world is coming to an end because of global warming. My argument to them is not about the changing environment, it’s about the fact 46 percent of our energy coming from coal now is going to go down, dramatically, over the next 30 or 40 years. Let’s talk about this transition. I’m finding people get excited about that idea.

Is there a battle mentality on both sides?

The environmental battle is really a cultural battle. Once you take the cultural war of out the debate it becomes a different argument. The cultural argument is the shining object, but take the shiny object away and people say, well, this (energy) is an interesting thing to talk about.

How do you view the cultural battle at this point?

Conservatives worry about energy because there’s a cost insensitivity on the part of a lot of environmentalists who are screaming “crisis.” Crisis means you don’t pay attention to the cost of what you’re doing and you throw money down a rat’s hole, like Solyndra. Conservatives are very skeptical about how big climate change is and that is being used to fuel money to politically connected people.

Solyndra’s an old example, isn’t it?

But when you have these huge subsidy programs they are just ripe for the kind of manipulation that drives conservatives nuts. The government funds well basic research, but the government has a piss poor record of funding specific businesses. Conservatives have a real concern that once you mess with the fundamentals of the market you’re benefiting specific people rather than nudging things toward a better future.

What change could you imagine in the future?

It could take place reinforcing the current regulated monopoly model or it can take place where there’s more choice and competition for consumers. I think that’s a compelling message for people.

You see utilities as changing?

The government has granted them a monopoly with a guaranteed profit for decades and they might not be in the public interest any more. Ask Microsoft. They were on top of the world and then they got displaced over 20 years. Everyone has to adjust to the marketplace.

So is deregulation the answer?

There is no straight path to a deregulated market and the process can go off the rails. You have to be careful. What I would like to see is a transfer of power to consumers so people can reduce their reliance on the grid. We want the technological changes to work so consumers get more power over where and how they purchase energy.

What kind of clean energy gets your personal attention?

I am fascinated by solar, I love reading about Elon Musk and electric cars. All that is very interesting. A lot of people are attracted by that. And there’s no downside to these technologies.

Some conservatives have been critical of the state’s energy policy and focus on renewables. What has Minnesota done right?

Largely the thing we’re doing right is we have goals for our energy mix. I don’t care for how we’ve done that but we have a policy of moving away from the older, dirtier methods of energy to more modern and renewable energy. That’s a good path we’re on.

But?

How do we force the question of whether, 50 years from now, we want a model of a few big energy producers with a cozy relationship with government having a monopoly on energy or something else.

Is the MnCEF going to lobby?

The short answer is this session we wouldn’t be doing any lobbying. We’re registering as a 501(c)3, but I don’t see us as a think tank. We want to get people out of the cultural battle and into the policy questions. After the next election we might consider a 501(c)4, which allows lobbying.

What are immediate issues you might look at?

Community solar, which I’m really interested in, and net metering, which is a hot topic.

What’s success?

In two or three years I hope to see conservatives quit talking about renewable energy in terms of a culture war over the environment and climate change and instead talking about it in terms of technological change. We want to look at how we get to a place where we have reliable, inexpensive, clean energy.

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