In a 2021 corporate news release, Chicago-based Invenergy claimed to be “the largest privately held global developer, owner, and operator of sustainable energy solutions.” Under the guidance of its founder, billionaire Michael Polsky, the firm has become one of the most influential and controversial American players the weather-restricted wind energy industry.
In June 2022, energy journalist Robert Bryce reported on a lawsuit Invenergy had filed against Worth County, Iowa, seeking to force the community to accept development of a 30,000 acre wind turbine project. Beginning in April 2021, the county’s elected officials began approving ordinances and considering regulations to halt wind energy development.
This wasn’t the first time. Bryce wrote that Invenergy was “facing staunch opposition to its projects in multiple states.”
The author of A Question of Power: Electricity and The Wealth of Nations, Bryce maintains a Renewable Rejection Database to track local opposition to weather-restricted power projects. The database records at least six communities in four states, spanning 2015 through 2021, that have already successfully blocked Invenergy projects.
But that alone won’t slow down Polsky’s controversial colossus. The Inflation Reduction Act has touched off an unprecedented corporate welfare gold rush for wind energy developers. Polsky could have a big payday.
In a sane world, real environmentalists would shut this down. In addition to their heavy dependence on the weather and a mountain of tax dollars, wind and solar power systems also devour far more of the environment than every form of power they are supposed to replace.
Chewing Up the Environment
No less than the U.S. Department of Energy has reported that replacing the energy provided by a typical commercial nuclear reactor would require 3 million solar panels or 430 wind turbines. Similarly, a June 2021 report from Bloomberg News showed wind energy gobbles up 100 times more land than nuclear power.
The land use comparisons against natural gas are even more lopsided against the fickle wind and solar power systems.
Because it produces no air pollution, the Department of Energy has also praised nuclear power for producing “minimal waste” and providing the “equivalent of removing 100 million cars from the road and more than all other clean energy sources combined.”
On the financial side, Bryce recently reported that federal subsidies for solar energy in 2022 were 300 times greater than nuclear for each unit of energy produced. Similarly, he calculated wind energy subsidies at 69 times that of nuclear. He also wrote this is just a “foretaste of the climate corporatism to come,” as the Inflation Reduction Act will dump even more largesse on wind and solar.
Yet with all that massive assistance flooding into wind and solar, nuclear power still produces more American electricity than wind and solar combined.
Bryce also showed wind and solar subsidies are many times higher than oil, natural gas, and coal. But nuclear energy stands alone as the undisputed champion of producing more American electricity per subsidy dollar spent. If decoupling carbon emissions from electricity production is the objective of these massive subsidies, then all the paydays for wind and solar should be taken away and redirected to nuclear power.
Although a far more rational public policy, this would present an existential threat to the Invenergy business model. The firm’s leader appears to have been very thorough in his efforts to prevent that from happening.
This gives him nearly a decade of leadership experience over one of the planet’s largest climate policy advocates. WRI employed more than 600 people and raked in more than $289 million for the fiscal year ending September 2020.
WRI’s annual reports from 2014 through 2022 show Polsky supporting them at the highest levels. He is credited with donations of $1 million or more for 2014 and 2015; $750,000 or more in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021; and $500,000 or more for 2022.
“As the electricity markets of the future take shape, I hope that this gift will help WRI deliver access to clean energy for everyone,” said Polsky, in a September 2015 WRI news release announcing one of his $1 million donations.
What is “clean energy”? That depends on where you look.
The International Energy Agency website tracks the combined electricity production of all major industrial nations (i.e., members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). Nuclear reactors were the developed world’s largest provider of carbon-free power for 53 consecutive months, literally every single monthly entry in a database that begins January 2010. Second place wasn’t wind or solar, but hydroelectric dams.
One might hope that a group now gobbling up a quarter billion dollars in annual revenue to be the “World” Resources Institute would want to ramp up the planet’s most important carbon-free energy sources. WRI is on a different planet. The nonprofit’s “energy future“ page is filled with only wind and solar promotions.
It gets worse. In 2018 WRI hosted an “environmental prize” awards ceremony honoring activists credited with blocking nuclear power in South Africa. The WRI news release praised the pair for a “victory that protected South Africa from an unprecedented expansion of the nuclear industry.”
Polsky has also been linked with at least three other major climate alarmist nonprofits that oppose nuclear energy: the League the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). His specific level of support for these three is unclear, but his generosity to the World Resources Institute indicates his capability.
According to Forbes, Polsky was worth an estimated $1.6 billion in October 2023.
More Nuclear Freeze
Polsky is quoted praising the NRDC in an October 2009 report produced by the group. “NRDC is providing the tough advocacy, experience, and vision to make the policy changes necessary to move the clean energy economy forward in the Midwest,” said Polsky.
But once again, “clean energy” has a very limited meaning.
The League of Conservation Voters thanked Polsky as a “Patron” level donor as recently as a 2013–2014 biannual report. As a 501(c)(4) advocacy nonprofit, LCV is not required to make general disclosures of donor names and appears to have avoided doing so ever since.
LCV co-signed a November 2020 letter to the U.S. Senate that claimed nuclear energy “amplifies and expands the dangers of climate change” and is an example of “false solutions to the climate crisis that perpetuate our reliance on dirty energy industries.”
In February 2015, the Rocky Mountain Institute announced that Invenergy was the “founding project developer” of RMI’s Business Renewables Center. Polsky’s firm shared this distinction with other heavyweights in the weather-dependent power industry, such as Apex Clean Energy, E.ON-Climate and Renewables North America, FirstSolar, NextEra Energy Resources, NRG Energy, OneEnergy Renewables, OwnEnergy, and SunEdison.
In May 2016 another RMI news release praised Invenergy for its work on the Business Renewables Center.
RMI reported a modest five-figure donation from Polsky in 2010, in what appears to be the last publicly revealed support given by him or Invenergy to the Colorado nonprofit.
However, like LCV, as a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit RMI is also legally permitted to maintain the privacy of its donors. As RMI’s funding base has grown over the years, so have the “anonymous” six-figure and above donations listed in its annual reports. For 2022, four anonymous donors were credited with donations of $1 million and above, one for a donation in excess of $500,000 (but less than $1 million), and eight for donations in excess of $100,000 (but less than $500,000).
RMI founder Amory Lovins has been a prominent opponent of nuclear power for nearly half a century and remains so today. In a 2011 RMI report, Lovins wrote that nuclear energy was “costly and dangerous and a poor alternative to renewable energy sources.” In a February 2022 report, another RMI researcher criticized French and Dutch investments in nuclear power. Also in 2022, Lovins testified in favor of closing California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear facility.
Polsky has also been generous with politicians.
“I met yesterday in Chicago with a big group of clean renewable energy businesses and they’re just ready to go,” said Hillary Clinton in the fall of 2015, a year before losing the 2016 presidential election. “But” she added, “they need some help from the government.”
The Washington Examiner reported that Clinton’s discussion with the needy took place at a $2,700 per person fundraiser held at Michael Polsky’s home.
What sort of “needs” did Polsky have? Three years earlier in 2012, according to the Carolina Journal, Invenergy had already hoovered up $199 million in wind energy stimulus payments from the Obama administration.
The Journal noted Polsky was “a major contributor to President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns” and had also forked over “the individual $50,000 maximum to Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration committee.”
Federal Election Commission (FEC) records reveal that he gave a total of $75,000 combined to the Hillary Victory Fund and Hillary for America, two political action committees (PACs) created to promote the Clinton 2016 Presidential Campaign. A 2019 Philanthropy News Digest report credited the Polsky Foundation, Michael Polsky’s philanthropic nonprofit, with putting at least another million bucks toward the Obama Foundation.
During the 2022 mid-term election, the Invenergy PAC spent $105,404, giving $77,000 directly to federal candidates (61 percent to Democrats). Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) received more than any other politician (his campaign was apparently in “need” of $8,500).
This was record-level spending for Invenergy PAC, an 11 percent increase over the $94,910 spent in 2020 and a 155 percent boost above the 2012 Obama reelection year. Invenergy has already reported raising more than $52,000 toward 2024 election spending.
Does He Mean It?
“I’m an engineer. Not an environmentalist,” said Polsky, in a quote that opens a peculiar November 2020 Forbes profile of the billionaire. The article notes that Polsky began collecting his fortune by developing America’s low-carbon natural gas infrastructure.
Natural gas leaves tiny environmental and financial footprints relative to its other huge advantages over wind and solar.
Bloomberg News reported wind energy needs 370 times more land than natural gas to produce the same kilowatts, and that solar as needs 140 times more. Robert Bryce‘s research for 2022 showed solar energy received 135 times more federal subsidies per kilowatt hour of electricity than oil and gas, and wind energy received 31 times more.
When used to generate electricity, natural gas produces just half the carbon emissions of coal, and coal chews up eight times more land to produce the same amount of power. Between 2000 and 2021, American per capita carbon emissions declined by 30 percent, largely because we switched so much of our electricity production from coal to natural gas.
Polsky first became a wealthy man as part of this success.
So, why switch to a line of work that eats up so much of the environment?
To explain the perverse behavior of firms that are confronted with these massive gobs of wind and solar energy corporate welfare, Robert Bryce quoted bank robber Willie Sutton. “When asked why he robbed banks,” wrote Bryce, “Sutton simply replied, ‘Because that’s where the money is.’”
Even as this flood of taxpayer loot has helped elevate Polsky to billionaire status, does the “engineer” who claims he isn’t an environmentalist really believe his new business model is as honorable as his original one?
Here it’s helpful to quote legendary journalist H.L. Mencken: “Never argue with a man whose job depends on not being convinced.”