Clean electricity standard should be a no brainer amid extreme climate impacts
You don’t need to be a weather forecaster to tell if it’s raining outside.
And you don’t need to be a climate scientist to tell that climate change is here.
Floods in Germany this week turned the roads into rivers, killing nearly 200 people and devastating the affected regions. In Lytton British Columbia, they recorded the hottest temperature in Canada ever recorded one day after the next for three days until the entire town burned to the ground. The Tamarack wildfire in northern California grew this weekend from 500 acres to 18,000 acres in 24 hours. Tropical storm Elsa led to subway stations flooding in New York City, and people using garbage bags to try and cover themselves as they waded through the water to get to the train.
This is not a drill. This is what climate scientists have predicted would happen for decades. For years, our leaders talked about climate change as if it was some far-off problem that we should avoid by taking gradual piecemeal steps. Well, here we are. The time for half-measures is undoubtedly over — and has been for quite some time.
And while there is no silver bullet to solving the climate crisis, the one thing we need to do right away, without delay, is generate our power from clean renewable energy technologies like wind and solar. Thankfully, our society is fairly good at making technology upgrades pretty rapidly.
Unless of course, the industry whose technology is being replaced is one of the oldest, richest and most powerful lobbies in politics, e.g. the fossil fuel industry. If you don’t believe me, ask the Exxon Mobil lobbyist who got caught on camera bragging about fighting the science, funneling money into shadow groups to misinform the public — and touted meeting with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va).
While all the climate initiatives proposed in President Biden’s original infrastructure package are needed, the clean electricity standard is the backbone. Without it, we can all switch to electric vehicles, but will continue spewing emissions from power plants instead of our tailpipes.
Once we have successfully transitioned our society to 100 percent clean power, we can build off that momentum as we address the building sector, transportation, land use, etc.
Since the good old filibuster prevented Democrats from passing the infrastructure package as originally conceived, Democrats have developed a two-pronged approach which includes the paired down $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill with hopes of bipartisan support, followed by a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package that could be passed with support from only Democrats — if all fall in line.
While we haven’t seen all the details yet, Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) said that the Clean Electricity Standard did make it into the budget reconciliation process, which means that all Senate Democrats need is 50 votes to pass it.
So, what does the clean electricity standard look like? According to Smith, it would require utilities to be 85 percent clean energy powered by 2030 and 100 percent by 2035. Utilities will be given incentives if they meet their goals or pay fines if they don’t. According to UC Santa Barbara Professor Leah Stokes, Ph.D., “you build clean stuff at the pace and scale that’s necessary, you get money. You don’t build clean stuff at the pace and scale that’s necessary, you have a fee.”
Since some utilities are further along than others, each will be given a goal relative to where they are now, so those utilities that aren’t as clean today aren’t too heavily burdened. This regional flexibility will make the pill a little easier to swallow for some, like Manchin, who has expressed concern of any bill that does “not have any fossil in play” which he said was “just wrong. It won’t happen. It can’t happen.” The administration is also including a half a billion dollar provision to support job transitions from the fossil fuel industry. I hope for the future of the planet that Manchin and other senators come around to support this.
White House National climate adviser Gina McCarthy even went so far to say that if this doesn’t pass, “we have lots of regulatory authority that we intend to use regardless, and we will move forward with those efforts to try to tackle the climate crisis.”
The truth is, clean energy’s time has come, and the fossil fuel industry’s time is over, whether they’d like to admit it or not.
In fact, nearly 80 of the country’s top corporations — including Apple, Google, Salesforce, Tesla, GM and Unilever — signed a letter to Congress recently urging them to pass the clean electricity standard.
“As business leaders we care deeply about the future of the U.S. and the health of its people and economy,” the letter states. “Passage of a federal clean electricity standard will drive large amounts of new renewable generation and do so in a way that provides businesses with a clear path and expectations to make needed investments at the scale and speed necessary.”
States also know how important this is and have been working on it for years. The lack of clean energy policy from the federal level has spurred states to try and figure this out on their own. For decades, they have put together a patch work of clean energy standards across the country typically referred to as a “renewable portfolio standards.” Thankfully, 38 states and Washington, D.C. already have renewable portfolio standards or a renewable energy goal. In other words, a national clean electricity standard is not that bold. It does however prevent a handful of stragglers from continuing to pour carbon into our shared atmosphere. And it also makes the states ratchet up the speed with which they reach 100 percent renewable.
While businesses and most states are on board, how about the public? Now here’s where it gets really interesting. While the country is more divided than it has been in years, clean energy is one area where there is tremendous consensus.
Yale reported that 85 percent of Americans were in favor of having 100 percent clean energy from their utilities — read that again: 85 percent. How many issues is there 85 percent consensus on these days? Not many.
And it’s no wonder why. According to Mark Jacobson and his team at Stanford, switching to 100 percent clean electricity will create a net increase of 2 million new jobs and will collectively save Americans $1 trillion a year on our electric bills.
So, to recap: The clean electricity standard has broad public support, creates millions of jobs, saves trillions on energy costs, is supported by leading businesses — and by the way is a major key to preserving a livable climate — while helping prevent the 7 million deaths a year caused by air pollution.
So, how hasn’t this happened yet?
Unfortunately, in addition to the climate crisis, we also have a democracy in crisis, where money in politics has stalled progress on climate and so many other issues for years and years. Perhaps it’s the climate crisis that will finally get the leaders to start acting like leaders. Perhaps when they look outside and see what’s happening, their better judgement will remind them that they have the power to do something about it. In the meantime, we must continue to push local efforts and work with our neighbors to accelerate the just transition to a clean energy economy as quickly and as equitably as we possibly can.
Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas.
This piece has been updated.