Sarah Golden explores the critical political battles which could unleash a major new wave of US clean energy development
This article was adapted from Energy Weekly, a free newsletter about the clean energy transition.
It’s the start of a new year, and I can already feel it’s going to be a big one for the clean energy transition.
Despite the massive global disruptions and rising cost of materials of the last two years, clean energy capacity continues to grow. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that 2021 is expected to set a fresh all-time record for new installations with 290GW of capacity globally. Bloomberg NEF pegs new solar capacity outstripping natural gas and coal combined.
Still, much progress (especially in the United States) has been driven by individuals; Individual communities, companies and people. In order to have a chance at our climate goals, we need policy to drive coordinated efforts to decarbonise.
Here are three political stories that could make or break our clean energy future.
The Build Back Better Act
Last year finished with some bad policy news: The future of Biden’s Build Back Better Act (BBBA), the most substantial climate policy the US has considered, came into question when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) said he wouldn’t support it.
This is bad news for living things. Without this bill, the US will not be on track to meet its 2030 goals.
It’s easy to feel cynical about this process. It’s absurd that our climate future is being decided by a man who made millions from coal and has more campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry this election cycle than any other senator.
(A joke via my brother told during Thanksgiving dinner: The Koch brothers have made many excellent investments in real estate. But their smartest investment is their Manchin in West Virginia.)
But word on the street is Manchin is back at the negotiating table; it’s never been more important to not quit on this bill.
“If we’re cynical, we’re regarded as savvy insiders who understand just how futile everything is,” wrote KC Golden in his 2021 holiday letter. “Optimists are dismissed as pollyannas and rarely quoted. It’s a vicious circle, draining downward. Since we really don’t know anyway, maybe we just say what’s right and necessary and fight like hell for it? The truth of the matter isn’t an outcome we foresee, it’s what we do.” (Editor’s note: KC Golden, a board chair for 350.org and an adviser to Evergreen Action, is the author’s uncle.)
Any company that has climate and clean energy goals should be supportive of this bill. As Miranda Ballentine, CEO of the Clean Energy Buyers Association, testified before the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis, the investments in the BBBA are “good for business, good for markets, good for consumer energy prices and good for the economy.”
Buckle up; it’s an election year
As exhausting as election cycles can be (I’m not ready yet!), elections are great at mobilising people around issues that matter to them. Increasingly, that includes climate change; two-thirds of Americans thought the government should be doing more for climate, as of June.
There’s now better infrastructure to mobilize clean energy supporters than ever. During the 2020 election, Clean Energy for America (formerly Clean Energy for Biden) did an amazing job of engaging and activating more than 13,000 individuals in all 50 states, connecting and mobilizing a community of clean energy professionals.
Since then, the org has been looking at critical races at the federal, state and local levels. With more people feeling the impacts of climate change and more workers employed in the clean energy sector, this is a political bloc that could make a meaningful difference in key races.
I’ll be watching if and how corporations get involved. Historically corporations try to stay out of contentious issues during election cycles, and this year may be no different. According to a survey from The Conference Board, unexpected internal “issues and pressure” made 2021 a challenging year for corporations to take political action such as political contributions and lobbying – and 42 per cent say 2022 will be even more challenging.
The survey results also indicate that customers and employees have influence over corporations’ political activities. The survey found that more corporations (77 per cent) are feeling pressure to take a stance on social/political issues. Almost as many (69 per cent) said employee attention has also made corporate political activity more challenging.
Despite the tenuous future of BBBA, the federal government is making moves to entrench climate and clean energy thinking throughout departments. As the election cycle may freeze other progress, these initiatives are worth watching.
Recent announcements that make me hopeful include:
The Department of Energy established a new office dedicated to clean energy technologies called the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations. The $20bn used to establish the office came from the infrastructure bill and is focused on adoption and deployment.
Sarah Bloom Raskin has emerged as the leading candidate to be Biden’s choice for vice chair of supervision at the Federal Reserve. Raskin is an outspoken climate advocate, and is sure to bring that lens to this position, if selected.
A new set of ads for Build Back Better are reframing the costs narrative, highlighting how clean energy will save consumers money. For too long dirty energy incumbents have erroneously controlled this talking point. Hopefully this will be a tipping point.
At the same time, it’s important to keep the pressure on where the federal government is watering down its climate and clean energy agenda. Indeed, it is that pressure that will give us the best chances at a safe climate future.
This article first appeared at GreenBiz.com.