Why Setting a Clean Energy Standard Should Be Democrats’ Next Move

Sunset illuminates storm clouds behind giant windmills.

Sunset illuminates storm clouds behind giant windmills.
Photo: David McNew (Getty Images)

Prior to last month, the last time Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House was the early Obama years. And one of the signature failures of that period was a 2009 bill that would’ve created a national cap and trade program but ultimately never came to a vote in the Senate (it squeaked by in the House).

Recreating that failure today is simply not an option given the severity of the climate crisis and the fact that both chambers of Congress and President Joe Biden have all indicated climate is a priority. A new report from Evergreen Action, the team that powered Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate plan and progressive think tank Data for Progress, lays out a plan for Democrats to make the most of their slim majorities by passing a clean electricity standard. It would set the entire country on a pathway to running on renewables or other carbon-free energy sources—and polling released with it shows the policy is supported by a majority of voters.

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A clean electricity standard is exactly what it sounds like. The government sets a standard for how much non-polluting electricity it wants to see on the grid, and then creates a credit system for utilities to ensure they meet yearly goals as well as penalties for if they fall behind. Biden promised during the campaign to get the U.S. to 100% clean electricity by 2035, and setting a standard would be a key way to do that. The new plan lays out a pathway to cut emissions 4% per year through 2035, which would be more than double the rate of what the U.S. has done to-date absent federal policy. Doing so could also interlock with other strategies such as increasing the uptake of electric vehicles to make sure they lead to decarbonization at the scale needed.

Eight states (including Inslee’s home state of Washington) as well as Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico already have binding 100% clean energy targets, while another half dozen have non-binding targets. The report notes a third of all Americans live in places with standards, so it’s not like doing it federally is reinventing the wheel. Polling released with the report also shows 66% of voters support investing to reach 100% clean energy by 2035, with majorities of Democrats and independents on board. And really, it’s hard to not like a standard that reduces the risk of frying the planet and also comes with a slew of co-benefits from less air pollution to more jobs.

“We know how they work, we know how to do it, and they’re extremely popular,” Leah Stokes, an energy policy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara who co-authored the report, said. “This is the kind of approach that we should be taking nationally this year to really scale up all the leadership that’s been happening at the state and local level to the federal level and make progress at the pace and scale that’s necessary.”

Indeed, some of the states with the most polluting grids in the country don’t have a standard. Many are Republican strongholds. Though clean electricity standards have garnered Republican support in the past, the current political environment is more conducive to state Republican leaders filing baseless election fraud lawsuits than focusing on materially protecting the climate. Bipartisanship on climate is also DOA in the House, where Republican leadership has welcomed a QAnon conspiracy theorist into their caucus with more gusto than actually appearing ready to legislate.

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As for the Senate, most Republicans have already lined up against other broadly popular ideas like Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus to kickstart the economy, and those that have said they’re open to negotiation have put forward a pittance of relief. That’s not to say Republicans couldn’t come along on a standard or that Democrats won’t try to reach them. Sen. Tina Smith, who has introduced a clean energy standard bill in the Senate 2019, said in a press call that she’s already reaching out to her Republican counterparts to try to bring them in. But it can’t be done at the expense of weakening the standard or making exemptions for “clean” electricity sources like natural gas.

The new Evergreen report lays out a pathway to get a clean electricity standard passed by a simple majority vote. There’s the obvious route of blowing up the filibuster. But Democrats seem to want to continually make things harder for themselves, which opens the door to reconciliation, an arcane process where a simple majority in the Senate can pass legislation without the threat of the filibuster.

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I won’t write a whole article on it because that’s already been done, but the key things to know are that reconciliation has a few requirements, including that it can only be used on bills tied to money and can’t lead to higher deficits after 10 years. Any bill in reconciliation also has to get signed off on by the Senate parliamentarian, adding an extra layer of opacity and confusion.

The party in power only gets one chance per year to use it, though Democrats have lucked into having a bonus reconciliation available because Republicans didn’t use it last year when they controlled the Senate. They may use one of their chances at reconciliation on Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus. But the report makes the case they should use their extra shot at reconciliation to pass a clean electricity standard.

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The report lays out three pathways for a clean electricity standard to fit within the reconciliation framework. In one, clean energy credits could function like currency being distributed by the government and passed around or sold by utilities while in another option, the government could do the purchasing, buying credits from utilities at an auction.

Other options that could make a clean electricity standard reconciliation-friendly include penalties that could be paid, providing funds for the transition or even integrating the system into the tax code itself. The report makes the case that Democrats have standing to go the reconciliation route, though the unelected Senate parliamentarian holds the final say. (Democrats could vote to overrule a decision they don’t like or fire the parliamentarian, adding still another layer of drama if they decide to go this route.)

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Senate rules aside, some utilities have pushed back on state standards since it would mean retiring fossil fuel infrastructure to generate electricity unless they invest in carbon capture technology (that itself is also fraught). But Stokes, who has written a book on utility malfeasance, said now could be the right moment for them to flip from delayers to allies.

“We cannot avoid a transition to clean energy, the question is whether we lead on it,” Sen. Smith said.

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There’s the power of public opinion and the fact that waiting to address climate change is no longer an option for the planet nor society. There are also strong financial incentives for utilities to hop on board. A separate report released this week showed delaying climate action 10 more years would create a multi-trillion-dollar catastrophe for the electric industry. Meanwhile, a study released in December found the vast majority of fossil fuel power plants are old and on the brink of retirement in the U.S.—or require costly repairs. A federal clean electricity standard would essentially be a lifeline to utilities slowly being backed into a corner by their own infrastructure and the physics of climate change.

“One of my biggest concerns about the feasibility of planning for a smooth and just transition is whether future plant closures are believable—people behave really differently in response to a plant announcement if they don’t believe it will actually happen,” Emily Grubert, a Georgia Tech engineer who authored the December study, wrote in an email. “A federal policy, preferably one that is difficult to renege on, is absolutely critical to providing certainty, in my opinion.”

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The report also makes the case for a clean electricity standard that prioritizes justice. Cleaning up the grid will inherently reduce air pollution that predominantly affects communities of color. Phasing out coal alone by 2035 would save 100,000 lives.

“Fundamentally, a clean electricity standard is a justice policy, because we’re saying we can’t continue to stick dirty fossil fuel infrastructure in Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous backyards, and continue to run it even when it is costing extra money to do that,” Stokes said.

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But the report also makes the case for ensuring those communities are part of the clean energy transition as well. The policy proposal includes credits that are carved outs to ensure utilities build out an increasing amount of clean energy in disadvantaged communities, identified using the equity mapping program at the Environmental Protection Agency that Biden also committed to improving in his climate executive orders last week. That would have the added benefit of creating jobs in those communities. Another carve-out would be for distributed renewable energy systems, such as rooftop and community solar. A clean energy standard could also be designed so that any credits are sold or traded on regional markets, ensuring that all the benefits of cleaner skies don’t accumulate in one region (say, the Northwest) while another area becomes a sacrifice zone (say, the Gulf Coast).

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Programs designed at improving energy efficiency and the Weatherization Assistance Program (the original WAP) are ways to further ensure that the clean energy transition also addresses historic injustices. Poor households tend to spend a disproportionate amount of their income on energy bills, keeping poverty entrenched. A clean electricity standard that also puts money into these programs would help start to alleviate inequalities. The report also makes the case for a tranche of money targeted at fossil fuel communities so they aren’t left behind as plants close. All these types of programs, like the clean electricity standard, are wildly popular in addition to being the right thing to do.

“My personal opinion, supported in part by some of Dr. Stokes’ previous work, is that real investment in social welfare like healthcare, living wages, etc. is actually an important complementary policy to direct energy policy for the transition,” Grubert said.

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