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Bernie Sanders’ Climate Plan: Excellent On Electrification, But Concerningly Authoritarian & Populist – #Election2020

Bernie Sanders’ electrification plan is excellent but depends on potentially dangerous authoritarian populism, his transportation plan is mostly about cars for less wealthy people, his land use plan is good, but military and industry don’t get nearly enough attention. Only about half of the $16.3 trillion can be tracked to things which actually reduce climate change.

As part of CleanTechnica‘s ongoing #Election2020 coverage, we are assessing the top candidates’ climate plans, and the interesting ones. So far, we’ve looked at Joe Biden’s, Elizabeth Warren’s, Kamala Harris’, and Andrew Yang’s. Now it’s time for Bernie Sanders, something many people have been asking me for. Fair warning, it has serious challenges of electability and focus.

Bernie Sanders’ electrification plan is excellent, but depends on potentially dangerous authoritarian populism, his transportation plan is mostly about cars for less wealthy people, and his land use plan is good, but military and industry don’t get nearly enough attention. Only about half of the $16.3 trillion can be tracked to things which actually reduce climate change.

Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign logo

Image courtesy of Bernie Sanders campaign

Sanders leans into the New Deal part of the Green New Deal, with only $8.7 trillion of the $16.3 trillion devoted to climate action. The rest is probably well spent, but won’t move the needle on carbon, and isn’t well focused on adaptation. Lots of smaller buckets for cleanup and social justice.

Sanders’ team has an excellent goal and expenditure for electrification of the entire US economy, grounded in empirical reality about what works and what doesn’t. The plan, however, basically nationalizes electrical generation and depends on Presidential emergency powers to succeed. The elements specifically targeting the fossil fuel industry, while understandable, are phrased as angry populism unlikely to resonate outside of a subset of the Democratic base.

The large majority of the transportation funding, about $2.7 trillion, is there to replace the internal combustion cars of people who aren’t well off with electric cars, which is of value but given that only a third is devoted to mass and freight transportation, it’s a very American Dream plan, not a particularly rational climate plan. 17% of US emissions are related to all light vehicles, but that category includes all pickup trucks, vans, and cars used for fleets, light-freight, farm vehicles and the like, as well as passenger cars. The numbers are skewed in the wrong direction a bit, although certainly music to US car manufacturers’ ears, as a lot of the benefits are only for American-made electric cars.

His land use approaches are good, but only $700 billion is traceable to climate action, mostly for agriculture. Getting rid of oil and gas extraction on public lands and waters is a good move, however.

Industry, like the well off, is going to have to pay its own way for the transition, mostly with demanding regulations.

Overall, I was only able to trace $8.7 billion mostly directly to actual climate action, and $2.7 trillion of that, or 31%, was to help low- and middle-income Americans replace their cars with new cars, albeit electric ones.

His foreign policy section is light compared to Harris’ and Biden’s, but he does address the Paris Accord and commits $200 billion to other countries’ efforts. There is no carbon price at all in his plan, just punitive taxation on the fossil fuel industry in general.

This is a very economically left-wing plan, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but the lack of a carbon tax and the effective nationalization of electrical generation make it a very hard sell to all but the most left-wing voters, when the Democratic Presidential candidate has to appeal to a lot of Independents to get the job. The disdain for the well-off, large businesses, and industry is concerning as well. The US doesn’t need another authoritarian populist in office, even if his heart is in a much better place than the current President’s.


As a reminder, global warming has several large areas of causation. Electrical generation, transportation, land use, and industry all have greenhouse gas emissions. The US military, which is seven times larger than the next seven largest military forces in the world combined, is estimated to be one of the single largest greenhouse gas sources in the world and has not been required to quantify its emissions, but which has also been pointing out the significant global security risks of climate change for over a decade. While dealing with the causes is critical, dealing with adaptation to the impacts is now important as well due to our delays in addressing this problem, which has been clear since the 1970s. Finally, while accelerating drawdown of carbon from the atmosphere is of lower priority than stopping the emissions of greenhouse gases, any plan should address aspects of carbon drawdown as well. These aspects of any plan need to be assessed to see if they are present and the approaches are reasonable.

Table Stakes

There are three things which virtually every Democratic candidate agrees with. The first is that they all accept the science of human-caused global warming and resulting climate impacts, and the need to act on this serious global issue. The second is a return to the Paris Accord, which Obama entered the US into and which Trump walked away from. The third is support for the Green New Deal, at least in principle, but implementation varies quite a bit. And the Paris Accord portion means that US military emissions would finally be reported, so that they could be tracked and reductions measured.

Electrical Generation

Bernie Sanders has by far the boldest vision for electricity of any of the plans. His goal — which is exactly the right one — is to provide every part of the US with enough cheap, carbon-neutral electricity from renewables to displace fossil fuels for primary and secondary energy for everything in the country.

“100 percent sustainable energy for electricity and transportation by no later than 2030 and to fully decarbonize the economy by 2050 at the latest”

[Note: All quotes are from Sander’s published climate change plan unless otherwise noted.]

While others use governance levers to speed renewable growth and to diminish fossil fuel use, Sanders is just going to effectively nationalize all renewable electricity build-out, electricity wholesaling, and to massively expand the grid. He would leverage and expand the four Power Marketing Administrations (PMA) that already cover 33 states and add a fifth to cover the remaining 17. He’ll fund them to build a tremendous amount of renewable energy and storage.

Note that this effectively nationalizes electrical generation and the majority of energy created and used in the US would be built, owned, and sold by the US government. The PMAs are divisions of the Department of Energy, not independent, for-profit organizations as utilities are.

“We will spend $1.52 trillion on renewable energy and $852 billion to build energy storage capacity”

I’ve published on this a couple of times, but the US, along with every other country, throws a lot of energy away due to the inefficiencies of fossil fuel refinement and combustion. Two-thirds of energy that starts in the system is wasted. As a result, it’s possible to completely replace all of today’s actually useful energy for everything for just over $3 trillion dollars. Sanders’ plan is more than enough to replace all fossil fuel electrical generation and use in the USA, electrify all ground transportation and then some, but not enough to replace all energy flows that use fossil fuels in industry. His federal goal is the 2030 target, and this would achieve it.

The $852 billion for energy storage would go a long way toward building pumped hydro on both the east and west coasts. Maybe it’s just me, but pumped hydro works, the US has massive resources where they are needed, and a lot of coal workers could easily be turned to that task instead of digging more coal or being retrained for completely different industries. Actually, that is just me as I haven’t seen anyone else say this yet, so perhaps I’m just missing something obvious.

“We will invest $30 billion for a StorageShot initiative to meet those goals. The StorageShot program will have a goal of commercializing technologies that can provide energy lasting 24 hours to multiple days at a capital cost lower than $1,000 a kilowatt”

Instead, Bernie Sanders is silent on the specific form of storage and is promising a great deal of research investment in addition to building storage. But Lazard is already indicating that pumped hydro is available with those energy characteristics at $263/kWh. Given the mismatch in units between Sanders’ kilowatt and Lazard’s kilowatt hour, perhaps there’s something I’m missing, but I suspect Sanders’ plan is simply using the wrong units and is deprecating the more obvious solution. As the same section talks about bringing car batteries down to the point at which electric cars would only cost $18,000, his team is thinking batteries.

On a related note, there’s no mention of the roughly 20 TWh of batteries that will be in electric cars by 2040 or so with this plan, a huge demand sink and vehicle-to-grid storage system that should be exploited.

“We will spend $526 billion on a modern, high-volt, underground, renewable, direct current, smart, electric transmission and distribution grid will ensure our transition to 100 percent sustainable energy is safe and smooth”

This is a key component of the build-out that other plans miss. First, it’s HVDC-based, which makes tremendous sense for continent-scale transmission, as I’ve published on in the past. The underground part is key for this because it basically dodges all the NIMBYs, is weather-proof, and is viable with HVDC. It’s unstated, but the US interstate system provides more than enough right-of-way for this approach, so without further exploration, there are obvious, viable corridors. Distribution on DC makes less sense and likely isn’t what is meant.

Local utilities will have all the electricity on demand to distribute that they want, and state regulations that give them the ability to spend tens of billions on useless nuclear reactors and coal carbon capture projects and pass those costs on to rate payers with a guaranteed profit for the utility will be a thing of the past.

Sanders is not a fan of nuclear, which makes sense. He wouldn’t sunset them prematurely, but his plan calls for stopping new builds and not renewing licenses for existing reactors. Given that the average age of the US nuclear fleet is 38, that means that by 2035 there would only be two reactors left. This is sensible economically, as with wind and solar coming in at $20 per MWh and the operations and maintenance cost alone for the nuclear fleet almost double that, it’s hard to justify them persisting. He doesn’t mention mandating regulatory relief for them so that they can bid on day-ahead markets as per Jenkins et al., but that’s a nit. Their electrical generation is easily replaced with this plan.

For the 2050 component of the plan, 100% decarbonization, he’d mostly leave it to the market to build the rest, but with very specific targets under “an EPA federal renewable energy standard.” This would be matched by ending fossil fuel subsidies, which his plan pegs at $15 billion annually, a number plucked seemingly from nowhere as it disagrees with Congressional Research, NRDC, and IMF numbers, falling between the first two.

There’s a gift to farmers in here though.

“$1.4 billion in the Rural Energy for America Program for clean energy options to both diversify income streams, save money, and eliminate fossil fuel dependence on farms”

It’s not that big of a number compared to the trillions in the plan, but at farm scale, you can buy a lot of solar power for $1.4 billion.

There are two possible flies in this ointment. The first is that he would be trampling over a large swathe of existing states’ rights and utilities’ existing monopolies and regulations. That’s manageable under his intent to declare “climate change a national emergency.” Federal, and specifically Presidential, authority goes way up under a national emergency, allowing Sanders to assume a great deal of executive power. Interestingly, this authoritarian streak is not aligned at all with how voters have perceived Sanders. This brings us to fly #2: this isn’t that salable a plan.

This is a federal infrastructure project similar to building the US expressway system, or Canada’s railway linking the coasts, or China’s high-speed rail network. It’s bold, it’s ambitious, and it would work. The only thing I would change with this portion of the plan is to add a trillion to it and finish the job of providing effectively free electricity for everything. Many other parts of the plan aren’t nearly as impactful. After all, “after 2035 electricity will be virtually free, aside from operations and maintenance costs,” likely under 2 cents per kWh wholesale.

That’s about $3 trillion for transforming power in the US, out of the $16.3 trillion plan. That’s pretty good, and reasonably well aligned with the relative scale of the problem.


While his electrical generation plan is very powerful, his plan for industry is… lacking.

“We will fund a $500 billion effort to research technologies to fully decarbonize industry”

That’s it. Sanders’ plan will certainly make it very attractive for industry to shift to electricity for primary power, but he mentions HFCs exactly once in passing, with no program for refrigeration replacement, which is #1 on Project Drawdown’s plan. Similarly, there is nothing on the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which would force changes for industry.

And there is nothing on cement, which produces 8% of the world’s greenhouse gases. Nothing on construction materials, and that’s a big wedge as decarbonization of electricity means that embodied carbon is the big problem, not energy efficiency.

There is $2.18 trillion promised for low- and moderate-income households and small-business energy efficiency retrofits, which is good, and another $964 billion for electrifying the same audience. Great stuff for that audience, but not likely to excite a lot of voters.

As for big hitters of industry and businesses?

“A federal mandate through the Department of Energy will ensure that new and existing commercial buildings and wealthy homeowners meet our energy retrofit goals”

As with Kamala Harris’ plan, there’s a fair amount in Bernie Sanders’ plan about holding polluters accountable, but he’s a bit more explicit.

“End the Greed of the Fossil Fuel Industry and Hold them Accountable”

Yup, no question who he has in his cross-hairs. And it’s not like I disagree with him. The 40 years of disinformation campaigns and distortion of US politics by the fossil fuel industry is something which must be stopped. There are a lot of pieces of the plan which are about taxing and prosecuting the industry. It’s fairly punitive and in combination with the emergency powers, not necessarily a good look. And while it will play very well with many segments of the Democratic base, it’s not going to play as well with Independents most likely, and is open to very reasonable attacks.

Frankly, there’s some dangerous authoritarian populism in his climate plan. I’m not sure how that carries through his other plans, but it’s far from statesmanlike. Harris’ approach to the same element is much more appealing, while having most of the same results.

This isn’t an exciting, salable, or complete plan for industry. They’ll be bearing the costs of the transformation themselves, a common refrain in Sanders’ approach.


There’s a lot more meat here than in the industry section, which is good.

“Provide $2.09 trillion in grants to low- and moderate-income families and small businesses to trade in their fossil fuel-dependent vehicles for new electric vehicles.[…]

Provide $681 billion for low- and moderate- income families and small businesses for a trade-in program to get old cars off the road”

That’s a good pairing, but a very big number. The Obama program helped get fuel-inefficient cars off the road, and this turns it into getting internal combustion cars off the road. That’s $2.7 trillion of electric car demand creation, and specifically for American electric cars.

This is actually something for industry, specifically the automotive industry. Of course, with Tesla being the only company selling lots of reasonably affordable cars (the Chevy Bolt is barely moving), there’s a lot of work for Ford and GM to do to catch up. They’ve been focusing their electrification efforts in China with partners there, so it will be interesting to see if they can bring their intellectual capital and manufacturing back.

Of course, charging is critical infrastructure for the American dream of a car for every person.

“$85.6 billion building a national electric vehicle charging infrastructure network”

That’s $2.8 trillion for electric cars so far. Thankfully he doesn’t stop there, but it’s a very car-centric plan.

“$407 billion in grants for states to help school districts and transit agencies replace all school and transit buses with electric buses.[…]

$216 billion to replace all diesel tractor trailer trucks with fast-charging and long-range electric trucks.”

This is very good. This gets the money to the right places. Older diesel buses and freight trucks are outsized contributors to air pollution and global warming, and displacing them with electric vehicles is the right choice. And also-rans like hydrogen trucks need not apply. Unlike the energy retrofits, the truck replacement funding is available up to the biggest fleets, an unusual variance from Sanders’ approach of taking care of the little guys and letting big business pay its own way.

Finally, some mass transportation starts to appear.

“$300 billion investment, we will increase public transit ridership by 65 percent by 2030.[…]

$607 billion investment in a regional high-speed rail system”

Hmmm… close to $3 trillion for individual automobiles, and less than a trillion for mass transit options. Most countries would consider that an odd inversion of priorities, but America, you be you.

Not over yet though.

“$150 billion effort to fully decarbonize aviation and maritime shipping and transportation”

All in, that’s about $4.5 trillion of the $16.3 trillion to decarbonize all transportation in Sanders’ plan, which is about right for the relative scale of the contribution. But close to two-thirds of it is about cars. Bicycles and walking aren’t mentioned at all.

Land Use

As with most of the major candidates, Sanders’ plan has a focus on federally owned lands and waters.

“We will immediately end all new and existing fossil fuel extraction on federal public lands.[…]

ban offshore drilling”

Like Harris, he’s not only going to stop new oil and gas leases on public land, but will shut down the existing leases.

What’s missing? The others are explicit about getting a lot more renewables built on public lands and waters. This is probably an oversight on the part of the people who wrote Sanders’ plan, as the only land the government controls is federal land. Of course, with emergency powers for the President, maybe it wasn’t an oversight.

There’s this as well, which is mostly targeted at public lands.

“invest $171 billion in reauthorizing and expanding the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] to provide good-paying jobs building green infrastructure, planting billions of trees and other native species, preventing flood and soil erosion, rebuilding wetlands and coral, cleaning up plastic pollution, constructing and maintaining accessible paths, trails, and fire breaks; rehabilitating and removing abandoned structures, and eradicating invasive species and flora disease; and other natural methods of carbon pollution sequestration. […]

$900 million to permanently fund the LWCF [Fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund] to safeguard natural areas, water resources, and our cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans.”

As I’ve said elsewhere, billions of trees when a trillion is a useful number of them globally isn’t a big item. There’s goodness here, but I’d rather see a hard large target for trees than a diffuse inclusion in a big list. There are useful things here, but a lot of them have nothing to do with climate change, which is a fairly common refrain in Sanders’ plan. Whether by GDP, population, or land mass, the US’ share of any global tree planting initiative should be closer to the range of 100 billion than not. After all, tiny New Zealand has committed to a billion. And $900 million is a rounding error in a $16.3 trillion plan.

When it comes to agriculture, there’s a set of good improvements.

“Help farms of all sizes transition to ecologically regenerative agricultural practices that rebuild rural communities, protect the climate, and strengthen the environment with an investment of $410 billion […]

pay farmers $160 billion for the soil health improvements they make and for the carbon they sequester[…]

$24.85 billion to bolster existing programs like the Conservation Stewardship program, the Agricultural Conservation Easement program, and the Regional Conservation Partnership program[…]

$500 million to help farmers that are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) transition their land to new organic farmers[…]

$1.48 billion in research to develop new, region-appropriate farming techniques and seeds”

So that’s about $600 billion for agriculture, a useful number. There’s another $500 billion devoted to cleaning up the messes on Superfund, brownfield, and oil extraction sites. Those are important, but will not directly aid climate change efforts. And another $36 billion to help suburbanites to convert lawns to mini-farms and copses of trees, which is nice, but once again, the dollars are a drop in the bucket and lawns that are planted with the right grass and tended appropriately are carbon sinks too.

So that’s about $700 billion of the $16.3 billion in Sanders’ plan that can actually be tracked to climate reductions. There’s a trend emerging here that’s odd.

The Military

Well, I’d been hearing that Bernie Sanders was hawkish on getting money out of the military to pay for parts of his plan. I was expecting great things.

“Bernie recognizes that the Pentagon is the largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gases in the world and that the United States spends $81 billion annually to protect oil supplies and transport routes. We are uniquely positioned to lead the planet in a wholesale shift away from militarism.[…]

Scaling back military spending on maintaining global oil dependence.”

Hmm… $81 billion a year out of a budget of $693 trillion when the US military is bigger than the next 7 militaries combined. That’s scaling back, not eliminating, and yet the US military is the biggest institutional emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

This is … okay.

But Warren’s commitment that all non-combat bases and infrastructure be net-zero carbon emitters by 2030 is better.

Note: I’ve reached out to the Bernie Sanders campaign for comments and if any are forthcoming the article will be updated.


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Written By

is a member of the Advisory Boards of electric aviation startup FLIMAX, Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy and co-founder of distnc technologies. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. His leadership positions in North America, Asia and Latin America enhanced his global point of view. He publishes regularly in multiple outlets on innovation, business, technology and policy. He is available for Board, strategy advisor and speaking engagements.


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