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What Is A Clean Energy Standard, & Why Is It Important For The US?

The Biden administration has proposed a clean energy standard that will slash emissions from the utility sector. Not only will it pay for itself, it may play a critical role in keeping the Earth suitable for human habitation.

The Biden administration wants to go to the COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow later this year with a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2030 and eliminate them entirely by 2035. That final goal will require shutting down all 185 remaining coal-fired generating plants in the US and slowing the construction of new unnatural gas powered generating stations. At present, there are plans to build 250 new gas facilities in America over the next 20 years, according to Vox.

In the US at the moment, 60% of all electricity is generated by burning coal or gas, 20% by nuclear power, and 20% by renewables such as wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal. It should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that sustained droughts make relying on hydro power fraught with uncertainty.

A Carrot & Stick Approach

A clean energy standard — one that provides the policy tools to encourage a transition to clean electrical power — would reward utility companies that succeed in meeting the standard and impose financial penalties on those who do not. Democrats in Congress propose making $150 billion in federal funds available to incentivize utilities to clean up their act.

Reactionaries see that amount of money and immediately start screaming about how the US can’t afford such largess. It can afford $1.5 trillion tax giveaways to the rich and it can afford to let 20% of corporations escape paying taxes altogether, so such arguments are fatuous at best. Mostly they are simply bleating from members of Congress who depend on the fossil fuel industry to fund their extravagant re-election campaigns.

Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota calls a clean energy standard “the biggest change in our energy policy since the lights went on.” Vox explains that the EV revolution is lowering pollution from the transportation sector but generating the electricity needed to power all those electrified vehicles still pumps million of tons of carbon dioxide, methane, mercury, and particulates into the atmosphere. Coupling the decarbonization of the energy sector with that of the transportation is essential to getting the United States aligned with the emissions reductions it committed to in Paris in 2015.

The clean energy transition has made progress in “an incremental, disjointed way” until now, Pam Kiely, a climate expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, tells Vox. She says Washington is finally recognizing the urgent need for “binding requirements that ensure you get the outcomes you want.”

The Multiplier Effect

Climate experts say there is no way to tackle the climate crisis without cleaning up the electricity sector. People may cut their carbon footprint by making their homes more efficient, installing solar panels, or buying an electric car, but coal and natural gas are still providing most of the electricity needed to keep the economy humming. Which means coal-fired power plant may be charging your Tesla, and unnatural gas may be powering the air conditioning in commercial buildings.

“By cleaning up our power sector, we can have a dramatic impact on carbon emissions,” Senator Smith says. “And when we combine that with other policies to electrify transportation, and to electrify building heating and cooling, it has a multiplier effect throughout the whole economy.”

In other words, to seriously slash pollution, the country needs to multitask. As the electric vehicle market booms and buildings upgrade to electric heating and cooling, their sources of electricity will also be modernizing in what could be a virtuous cycle: Electricity becomes a bigger share of US energy use, and clean electricity becomes a bigger share of electricity as a whole, Vox suggests.

It Pays To Go Green

Some people insist on believing the cost of clean energy is too high (What is it about eliminating the cost of fuel forever they don’t understand?) The truth is, a clean energy transition would create 500,000 to a 1,000,000 net new jobs before the end of this decade, according to a study from the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University. “Job losses in extractive fossil industries are more than offset by an increase in construction and manufacturing in the clean energy sector,” the study found.

Cutting air pollution also translates into the equivalent of $1.7 trillion in benefits from reduced health care costs, economic productivity, and lives saved, according to the climate think tank Energy Innovation.

Politics & Policies

Reactionaries argue a clean power standard violates free market dogma by permitting the federal government to pick winners and losers in the marketplace. That tired old shibboleth is completely inappropriate, however. The utility industry has been a regulated monopoly operating in the public interest for a century or more. That argument basically says it’s OK to critically damage the environment if there’s a buck to be made.

Some progressives are wringing their hands and arguing the Biden plan doesn’t go far enough, fast enough. They also object to investing federal dollars in carbon capture technology that has never been proven to work. It is yet another variation of the ongoing campaign by fossil fuel interests to find a way — any way — to continue extracting, transporting, and selling their death dealing products. It’s a scam just as much as the “blue hydrogen” bait and switch plan the industry is desperate to pass off on society so it can continue polluting the environment with impunity.

Sam Ricketts of Evergreen Action dismisses concerns over the cost of a clean energy standard. “We know there’s a cost to this energy transition. If we want to make the clean energy transition happen, we need to ensure investments reach every region and benefit every community.” He terms the clean energy standard “a progressive, job creating policy to drive an effective clean electricity transformation over the coming decade.”

Since the US rejoined the Paris climate agreement in the early days of Biden’s presidency, Democrats have committed themselves to showing the world America is committed to its climate change goals by bringing a strong clean energy standard with them to Glasgow. Democratic leaders acknowledged as much in a press conference last Wednesday. “My great hope is that we go to Glasgow with a great climate bill that will demonstrate our commitment to our Paris objectives,” said California Rep. Mike Levin, one of 134 House representatives who signed onto a letter calling for 100% clean electricity by 2035.

Senator Smith also sees this as a make or break moment: “I don’t see how you can reach our climate goals, nor how you can reach our goals for creating clean energy jobs and for creating a healthier, more equitable economy, without this kind of bold policy.”

In light of the latest IPCC 6 climate report, the time to dramatically reduce emissions is now. If the US fails to lead on lowering emissions, other nations will find it easier to kick the can down the road themselves. As President Kennedy told us, “We choose to do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.” A great nation cannot afford to shirk its responsibility to its citizens and to the world community.

 
 
 
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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?

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