Symposium | The Green New Deal

Cleaning Up the Electricity System

By Leah C. Stokes

Tagged Green New Deal

We have known about climate change for many decades. Yet we have failed to act. Our tardiness in reducing carbon pollution is beginning to show: Hurricanes are destroying entire communities, drought and flooding are impoverishing farmers, and growing heat waves are claiming lives each year. The fires we’ve seen raging this year in Australia will leave that continent forever changed.

While the climate crisis has accelerated, politicians are finally speaking up. The Democratic primary has proven an arms race for climate commitments, with the Green New Deal at the center of the debate. This new policy idea not only centers the benefits of action, it also reminds us that we must have solutions at the scale of the crisis.

To avoid the worst impacts of warming, scientists have told us that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. To meet these targets, we must make progress on cleaning up two sectors in particular: electricity and transportation. Together, they contribute around 57 percent of today’s emissions.

If we aim to decarbonize our electricity system and most of our transportation system by 2035, while also pushing progress in other areas, we would be on track for what scientists say we must do in the next decade.

The Green New Deal reminds us to look not only at where we are today, but to focus on where we need to be.

We can begin by setting simple benchmarks for low-carbon electricity, including wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, nuclear, and hydropower. You can think of the electricity system as 100 little slices of a pie. Each slice is one percentage point, and by 2035, we’d need every single slice to be from clean energy.

So how are we doing?

We can start in the year 2000 and draw a straight line out to 2035, when we hope to have 100 percent clean energy. Based on this benchmark, we would already need more than 50 percent of the electricity supply to come from clean energy sources. Right now, though, we get a little more than one-third of our electricity from clean energy sources, putting us more than 10 percentage points behind schedule. And it isn’t growing quickly—between 2009 and 2019, it only grew from 31 percent to 37 percent. That’s an average annual growth rate of less than 1 percentage point.

It can be difficult to understand what it would look like to meet this target. But to get a sense of the scale of this challenge, I’ve created a figure that folks have dubbed “the narwhal curve.” It helps show the speed and scale intuitively.

If we draw a straight line—a narwhal tusk—from 2018 to 2035, we can see that we need to make up for lost time. Clean energy must grow by more than 4 points annually. This is almost a six-fold increase over historic rates. It’s a daunting pace.

Yet even this ambitious benchmark underestimates the challenge we face. We also need to grow the grid dramatically to power our homes, businesses, cars, trucks, and other vehicles with clean energy. Hence we don’t just need 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. We need 200 percent clean electricity so we can also move our buildings and transportation away from fossil fuels.

Of course, if we invest heavily in energy efficiency, the tusk will be less steep because we won’t have to grow the grid as much. That’s important to do today, when our energy system is still powered by dirty fossil fuels.

If we keep safe nuclear plants open, it will be easier to make progress—they currently supply more than half of our clean power. If safe nuclear plants close, or if we aim for a 100 percent renewable energy system rather than a 100 percent clean energy system, it gets much harder to meet our targets. Renewable energy needs to grow fast enough to replace retiring nuclear and coal. Unfortunately, so far this isn’t happening—in 2018, natural gas grew faster than renewables.

The pace and scale of cleaning up the electricity system are not secondary issues but the central challenge.

We can also see these facts playing out in the financials. New investment in clean energy in the United States peaked in 2011 at $62 billion. For the next half decade, spending fell, hovering around $56 billion annually. While the last two years have been stronger, we are not seeing year-over-year steady growth in clean energy investment. We simply do not have the policy in place to accelerate the clean energy transition.

Today, China and the European Union have pulled ahead in wind energy—both regions now have twice as many turbines installed as the United States. No matter how you slice it, the fact is clear: We have procrastinated on cleaning up the electricity system for too long.

There are, nevertheless, some reasons to be hopeful. In 2019, renewable energy provided more energy than coal for the first time ever. With costs falling so quickly, we might expect these technologies to flood the market fast.

Unfortunately, that’s not how the electricity system works. In many parts of the country, electric utilities have poured billions into retrofitting old coal plants. With this debt, these companies are reluctant to shut them down quickly—even though it’s costing the public. Not only do these old, uneconomic coal plants jack up electricity prices—they also pollute. And that pollution burden falls disproportionately on black and brown communities.

A few states have stepped up in the past two years including California, Washington, Colorado, Hawaii, New Mexico, and New York. They now have laws on the books that will dramatically ramp up climate action.

However, there are many more clean energy laggards than leaders. For example, Florida only had 15 percent clean energy in 2018. Utilities have spent decades in that sunshine-drenched state beating back efforts to enact a Renewable Portfolio Standard, which would require electric utilities to generate a certain percentage of electricity from renewables. West Virginia repealed its clean energy law in 2015. It’s now the second worst state in the country: Only 5 percent of its electricity system comes from clean sources.

Many falsely believe Texas is a leader—but it does not come close to doing what is necessary. Despite running ahead on clean energy, Texas was producing only 26 percent of its electricity from clean sources in 2018, putting it 24 points behind 2035 benchmarks.

California and Iowa highlight what a successful path toward the clean energy future really looks like. Respectively, these states had 53 percent and 43 percent clean energy by 2018, putting them ahead of their own goals as well as the 2050 benchmark.

Almost half the country’s electricity system still lacks clean energy targets. In 2018, more states were behind on meeting a 2050 target than were ahead of schedule. And even in states that are beating the benchmark, there is still a need to fill the gap when aging nuclear plants close, and a need to massively expand the electricity system to electrify buildings and transportation, as previously mentioned.

Clearly we can’t just rely on piecemeal action from our states and cities—we need national policy to meet these targets.

Rather than progress, federal climate policy has been caught in a decades-long debate over details: caps versus taxes, dividends versus mandates, auctions versus free allocations.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the federal government started providing support for new clean energy technologies through tax credits. The Production Tax Credit has driven growth in wind energy. The Investment Tax Credit has supported solar energy. And the Electric Vehicle Tax Credit has helped Americans buy cleaner cars. These policies were effective, driving the solar industry to increase deployment by more than 10,000 percent and creating more than 200,000 jobs. Wind turbines now generate 6.5 percent of our electricity, and the industry pays over $1 billion a year to rural communities and states.

These policies, while meager, are the best climate laws we have had on the books. And they are popular. Wind and solar energy have broad support across the country. Four out of five Americans support these tax credits for electric vehicles and solar—even in red and purple states like Iowa, Texas, and Ohio.

But unfortunately, Congress just squandered an opportunity to renew these tax credits when they failed to pass a bill to extend them. On January 1, 2021, new wind energy will no longer have federal support. And solar tax credits have already started ramping down. Americans who want to buy a car from one of the frontrunners in electric vehicles—Tesla and General Motors—can no longer get a full tax credit.

Letting these bedrock federal policies expire puts us farther behind on these 2035 targets. In the past, when these tax credits have lapsed, clean energy has shrunk dramatically. This policy instability is expensive and leads to layoffs. It puts America at risk of falling even farther behind other countries in the clean energy race. We will see this tragedy play out again.

By contrast, dirty fossil fuels continue to receive government support. Since 1916, Congress has kept subsidies for fossil fuels in place. Over the past century, the federal government has spent more than $500 billion propping up dirty energy. These subsidies continue, regardless of the profits the oil industry rakes in, and no matter the costs for the rest of us in health impacts and climate change.

The status quo will not get us where we need to go fast enough. We need a WWII-scale mobilization. What would that look like?

To be on track for 2030, we need to get a federal clean electricity standard and clean vehicle standard in place. This will require all states to start making progress. Advocates have tried to pass these policies for decades. We must have requirements and annual benchmarks for clean energy.

We can pair those requirements with support for clean energy. In the past, when grants have been made available rather than tax credits, clean energy has grown even faster. Taking that approach will help ramp up the pace. We also need to streamline the approval process for renewable energy projects, like offshore wind. The same is true for transmission lines and big storage projects, like pumped hydro. We cannot afford to have projects bogged down with regulatory delays.

Yet, moving this fast is also likely to create conflicts at the local scale. For this reason, we must ensure that communities see benefits from projects. This can be done through community benefits agreements and other approaches that share profits. It also means that jobs must be good paying, and unionized whenever possible.

Tackling climate change will also require new and lower cost technologies—large scale batteries, machines or processes to remove carbon from the air, and new solutions for heavy industry to operate without emissions. To bring these technologies to market at a competitive cost, the government will need to support innovation and deployment.

We also need to be expanding support for electric vehicles. Ideally, it would be cheaper to buy a clean car than a polluting one. That is not the case. It would be possible if we had policies to buy Americans’ old polluting cars—a cash for clunkers program—and to help cover the costs of new cars. Right now, it’s easier for wealthy Americans to use the EV tax credits because they are able to carry the costs for a year, while they wait for their tax credit to be applied when they file their taxes. We should change the policy to point of sale, so that more people can afford to make the switch.

And we must dramatically scale up federal support for public transit. That means funding for electric buses—including school buses. It’s not enough to build on our low-density, suburban sprawl. We need transit-oriented planning to help more people live. The federal government should also fund protected bike lanes and pedestrian projects, to help more people walk and bike to work.

As we grow our electricity system, we are also going to need to dramatically scale up energy efficiency. Supporting the Energy Star program, and home retrofits, are both ways that the federal government can help us power our homes with less energy.

And in the short term, we need our federal and state governments to be working together to keep safe nuclear plants open. That means license extensions and support for plants that are struggling to compete with cheap fossil gas.

Finally, we must remove fossil fuel subsidies and polluting plants as fast as possible. In some cases, this may involve paying utilities to close projects early, for example through securitization.

The good news is that this is a popular approach—the public supports clean energy targets. And support only grows when good-paying jobs are emphasized.

Of course, this plan won’t clean up every corner of the transportation system. Airplanes will not be running on electricity anytime soon. But flying is just 3 percent of current U.S. emissions. So while we need to make progress, it’s not the lion’s share of the problem. In the future, we may be able to make synthetic fuel to power planes, potentially by harvesting historic carbon pollution from the air. Creating liquid fuels would also help with other kinds of transportation that will be difficult to run on batteries.

And these aren’t the only sectors that the Green New Deal will need to target. We also must reduce emissions from heavy industry, buildings, and agriculture. And we must recognize that continuing fossil fuel extraction is not compatible with a stable climate.

Right now, these ideas are not on the agenda in Congress. But they are being debated and developed in the Democratic primary. And that is good news. We cannot continue to push small policies, like a low carbon price, and expect that to move us fast enough. We cannot afford to pass symbolic policies and declare victory. Policies must bring us closer to addressing climate change—whether directly reducing greenhouse gas emissions or indirectly innovating low-carbon technology that can be used around the world.

Cleaning up the U.S. electricity system is the first linchpin globally to tackling the climate crisis. Because if we can do this in the United States, we can share our technologies with countries around the world.

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Leah C. Stokes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and affiliated with the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management and the Environmental Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

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