For those concerned that Republicans will lead attacks on clean energy programs, Brian Castelli from the Alliance to Save Energy said don’t worry, “they have a better target.”

Last year’s passage of health care reform, he says, might protect EE programs since attacking that law will absorb much of the Republicans’ time. The new political reality has hung over the entire MEEA conference. Castelli opened the last plenary session by flashing maps illustrating the Republican takeover of state legislatures and governor’s mansions throughout the Midwest. He called it a “Red Storm Rising.”

But Castelli contrasted today’s political situation with 1994, when a resurgent Republican Party also took over Congress, and said the environment for EE has changed significantly for the better. Back then, the very first targets of the new Congress were EE and clean energy programs. Right out of the gate, all those ideas “got immediately hit by the conservative think tanks” through policy papers and faxes, setting a hostile tone whenever environmental subjects arose.

But today, there has been relative silence from those quarters, at least when it comes to cleaner energy. And that makes Castelli perhaps a bit more optimistic than other conference participants. He believes there are at least some prospects for passing a new version of the American Clean Energy Leadership Act (ACELA) – which the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee approved with several Republican votes during the last Congress, but was never made into law.

He also noted that the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), which was created in 1976 to assist low-income families to invest in energy efficiency, is up for reauthorization in 2012. “I’m pretty bullish that we’ll get that through,” he said.

Dr. Martin Kushler, senior fellow at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and self-described “curmudgeon,” closed out the session on a slightly more pessimistic note:

“The elephant in the room, and the pun is intended.”

And even if Republicans don’t go after EE programs, he said, the turnover of eight new governors in the Midwest represent an institutional knowledge drain, and advocates will have to work doubly hard to ensure new administrations understand the complexities of EE.

Time will tell whether “I was a savant or an idiot,” Kushler said, but if the EE community manages to hang on to all the gains made over the last few years “I would be a happy camper.”