(Reuters) - U.S. solar and wind energy companies have donated far more money to Republicans than Democrats in congressional races this election cycle, according to a Reuters analysis of campaign finance data, an unprecedented tilt to the right for an industry long associated with the environmental left.
While the money is modest compared with that donated by fossil fuel interests, the support provides GOP candidates with added credibility on clean energy, an issue polling shows swing voters care about.
Renewable energy has typically depended on government subsidies and policies to help fuel its growth, and the donations come at a time when Republicans control both houses of Congress as well as a majority of state houses across the country. Republicans have so far left subsidies for the industry largely intact.
“We support those leaders who share our vision,” said Arthur Haubenstock, vice president of policy and strategy at 8minutenergy Renewables LLC, a California-based solar project developer, and treasurer of a newly formed employee-funded political action committee that shares the company’s name. So far, the PAC has donated only to Republicans.
Overall, political action committees representing solar and wind companies have donated nearly $400,000 to candidates and PACs in the 2018 election cycle, including $247,000 to Republicans, $139,300 to Democrats, and $7,500 to independents, according to the Reuters analysis.
That marks a record. During the 2016 presidential elections, the first cycle during which the clean energy industry gave more to the GOP than to Democrats, Republicans received just over half of the combined $695,470 in political contributions from major wind and solar PACs.
Before that, solar and wind companies mainly donated to Democrats, who were broadly seen as more supportive of policies that could help the nascent sector grow. In 2014, 70 percent of the contributions from seven major wind and solar PACs went to Democrats.
The U.S. solar and wind industries have expanded greatly over the last decade and now employ some 300,000 workers nationwide, nearly six times more than coal mining. The hottest growth has been in states that voted heavily for President Donald Trump in 2016.
That has helped strengthen the industry’s appeal to Republican lawmakers, allowing it to rebrand as a jobs engine for the heartland, instead of as a tool for combating global warming, an issue that played better with Democrats.
“Solar is creating economic activity in so many districts,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, head of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), whose donations have tilted heavily toward the GOP. Global warming “is certainly not our lead talking point,” she said.
SEIA has contributed more than twice as much to Republicans as to Democrats this cycle, $56,500 versus $26,700.
Prior to 2016, SEIA’s contributions to Democrats were reliably double what the group gave to Republicans. The American Wind Energy Association’s PAC, too, has shifted its giving. In 2014 it gave Democrats twice as much money as Republicans, while in the current cycle it has given $87,500 to Republicans compared to $67,500 for Democrats.
Polls have found widespread support for renewable energy among voters, including among Republicans. Most recently, a Gallup poll from early March found 73 percent of adults favor an emphasis on alternatives like wind and solar over traditional fossil fuels. Just over half of Republicans - 51 percent - favored alternatives, compared with 88 percent of Democrats, Gallup said.
Among moderate Republicans and voters who lean Republican, there is even wider support for renewable energy. A poll conducted by Pew Research Center in early 2017 found that nearly two-thirds of that group favored alternative energy sources over fossil fuels.
The polls also found that attitudes toward clean energy are not necessarily linked to those about climate change. The Gallup poll, for instance, found just 35 percent of Republicans think climate change is caused by human activities, and 69 percent think the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated.
“Clean energy works every time and it doesn’t alienate the base,” said Jay Faison, Chief Executive of ClearPath, a group that aims to help elect Republicans supporting clean power. Independent-minded voters view support for alternative energy as a signal that a candidate is “not an errand boy for the party leadership,” he added.
Nevada incumbent Senator Dean Heller is among the chief Republican beneficiaries of support from the clean energy industry. His re-election effort has drawn more than $15,000 in backing from solar and wind this election cycle.
Nevada ranks fourth in the nation in solar installations and generates more than 11 percent of its electricity from the sun. One in every 203 people is employed by the solar industry in Nevada, putting it second only to ultra-green California.
Heller told Reuters he supports clean energy because of the jobs it has brought to his state. Nevada has been able to attract employers like Tesla, he said, in part because its abundant sunshine can produce renewable power for factories and other business operations.
He added he doesn’t see a conflict with supporting both solar energy and fossil fuel interests: “I’m very pro ‘all of the above,’ and I think that’s where the GOP is,” he said.
Other Republicans receiving solar and wind donations include Kevin Brady of Texas, Carlos Curbelo of Florida, George Holding of North Carolina and Tom Reed of New York, all members of the House Committee on Ways and Means, which is responsible for writing tax policy.
All four hail from states with sizeable solar markets, and Curbelo is also co-chair of the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers working on policies to address climate change.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has received about $13,500 in contributions from the renewable energy PACs, and SEIA held a fundraiser for him in his California district last year. McCarthy’s congressional district, which includes a swath of the Mojave desert, boasts more solar capacity than any other district in the nation, most of it in large-scale projects for utilities.
Democratic and environmental groups downplay the clean energy industry’s shifting financial support, saying companies are simply trying to protect their interests by supporting the party in power.
“AWEA and SEIA are trade associations representing the financial business interests of their member companies,” said Sara Chieffo, vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, which has found itself at odds with solar and wind PACs on many candidates, including Heller.
The league gives Heller rock-bottom marks for his environmental voting record and has endorsed his Democratic opponent, Jacky Rosen, in the Nevada senate race.
Most environmental groups still primarily back Democrats. The League of Conservation Voters, for example, has contributed $1.3 million to Democratic congressional candidates this cycle but has not supported a single Republican. Billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action Super PAC has spent tens of millions of dollars in recent election cycles on campaigns against Republicans and for Democratic candidates.
Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Sabrina Singh questions why solar and wind companies would support Republicans over Democrats.
Republicans, she said, “consistently seek to defund efforts to promote clean energy,” while “Democrats at both the federal and state level have been fighting to promote renewable energy.”
The Republican National Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
Renewable energy industry shifts to backing Republicans - tmsnrt.rs/2vGH8zh
Additional reporting by Grant Smith in New York; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Sue Horton