Let's get down to (energy) business
President Joe Biden has entered the White House. He said he wants to convert the country to clean electricity in the next 15 years. Now’s his chance to act.
Welcome back to Bright Ideas, a weekly newsletter on the rise of clean energy, written by me, L.A.-based reporter Julian Spector. After nerding out on clean energy for years, it’s weird to see it move from wonky niche to a driving force of a presidential administration. Those of you who subscribed when I launched this newsletter last spring can rightfully claim you were hip to this trend before it took over the mainstream newsfeed.
But I’ve got something special for you today that you probably haven’t seen in your mainstream newsfeed, and that’s a guide to how Biden can enact his 100 percent clean energy standard if he chooses to follow through on that pledge. This is drawing heavily on a story I published this morning on Greentech Media, so if you like the quick hit version, check out the full-length, and please share either with anyone who wants to learn more about this stuff.
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What is a Clean Energy Standard? Why should I care?
The clean energy policy Biden campaigned on would require America’s electricity providers to make 100 percent of their power from carbon-free sources by 2035. It’s a national version of what numerous states have already done (banning fossil fueled power by a certain date). But whereas states typically give themselves until 2045 or 2050, Biden speeds up the timeline considerably.
Crucially, the clean energy standard would be technology neutral, meaning Biden isn’t trying to dictate exactly what tools utilities use, so long as they don’t emit carbon. That avoids internecine battles over definitions—a “renewables only” policy, for instance, would ban nuclear power, the current largest source of carbon-free electricity in the country.
This policy only matters to you if you have an interest in the long term stability of the climate or if you consume electricity. If either of those apply, then pay attention, because this could be one of the most dramatic changes in how the American grid operates since, well, its invention.
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How the hell do you pass such a thing?
Senate Republicans signed off on a round of renewable energy tax credits and R&D funds in December, but there’s no reason to expect 10 of them are ready to eradicate fossil fuels from the national electricity system. That means the clean energy standard wouldn’t clear a filibuster. And if recent headlines are any indication, the Democrats won’t agree on axing the filibuster any time soon, either.
But there is another way: A maneuver called budget reconciliation only requires a simple majority to pass. The trick is that bills must meet a strict set of rules to qualify, which generally limit legislation to matters of “spending or revenues.” Reconciliation is generally meant for fiscal policy, not other policy.
The solution, according to Leah Stokes, political science professor at U.C. Santa Barbara and a prolific energy policy analyst, is to write a clean energy standard that fits the rules of reconciliation.
Stokes wrote a report on this with Data for Progress and Evergreen, a group founded by climate staffers from Gov. Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign. She gave me a preview of what’s in the report, which comes out in the next couple of weeks.
“This is the heart of his bold, ambitious platform,” Stokes told me, referring to Biden's clean energy standard. “The goal of our report is to make it clear that this can be done through reconciliation.”
That could go like so:
Use budget reconciliation to set up a federal marketplace for clean electricity credits. Utilities need to meet clean energy targets, and if they don’t, they buy credits from the government or pay a fee. The government also uses money from that to pay for clean energy investments to move things along.
The federal government gives out block grants to states that pass their own clean energy standards. It would be like Medicaid expansion under Obamacare: the federal government sends resources to states that enact a desired policy.
Congress sets a timeline for utilities to reduce their carbon emissions. Failure to meet the goals incurs a penalty; hitting them could bring resources from the feds.
I’ll link to the full report when it comes out so you can dig deeper. I’ll say that these findings are unconventional; several experts I contacted didn’t think such a policy could work for budget reconciliation. But as you can see, it’s not hard to turn energy policy into something involving government spending and revenues, which is what a budget bill boils down to.
The clean energy standard is the heart of Biden’s climate platform. But there’s little precedent for passing something this ambitious at the federal level.
Who wants it?
The months-long Election Day 2020 left us with a final plot twist: After all the warnings of socialism from the Right and the push for electability from the Left, the American people spoke and now Bernie Sanders will run the Senate Budget Committee. That means the person in charge of crafting any budget deals is someone who wanted to invest even more money into clean energy than Biden.
That’s good news for a clean-energy-heavy stimulus deal. Sanders said in an op-ed last week that he’d absolutely use budget reconciliation to address the nation’s many pressing challenges. He noted:
“As we lead the world in combating the existential threat of climate change, we can create millions more jobs by making massive investments in wind, solar, geothermal, electric vehicles, weatherization and energy storage.”
But what’s interesting there is Sanders specifically didn’t say he would throw a 100 percent clean energy law into the mix at this moment.
Having a long-term clean energy plan is crucial, but it’s a massive, structural shift that’s worth thinking through. Sanders could be willing to contemplate a clean energy standard through budget reconciliation after dealing with the deadly pandemic and the related recession. And clean stimulus now will serve whatever long term strategy eventually comes together—that future’s going to need a lot more solar, wind, batteries and transmission lines pretty much any way you slice it.
If this all sounds too radical for Joe Biden, I’ll just note that he’s hired several White House climate officials who spent the last year or more advocating specifically for a 100 percent clean energy policy. It’s too early to know what legislative tactics they end up employing, but the pieces have fallen into place for something to happen.
This week in quarantine: Read about trees
A story of the trees, by the trees, for the trees.
At this point, y’all know about my fungi fascination. But once I learned of the subterranean communications and interspecies economies afoot in the fungal world, I had to know what else is going on down there.
I found a book that guided me into this world, revealing the rich inner lives of trees. It’s called The Overstory, a Pulitzer-winning novel from 2018 by Richard Powers. And before you trash this email, let me clarify that the protagonists of this novel are not, in fact, pines or chestnuts or hemlocks, nor does the narrative take on the ponderous perspective of a root reaching into the soil.
Instead, the story follows quite a few different humans while acknowledging the trees that surround them and shape their lives, even if the people don’t always notice. These characters struggle to find a place in a world driven by consumption and extraction, while they come to recognize the pre-capitalist values of trees. Can they stop the churning machine of progress—perhaps with a bit of sabotage?
Along the way, Powers packs in enough sylvan revelations to turn any mercenary into an arborist. The main one I keep returning to is how a tree absorbs water, sunlight, and air, and makes wood. We all learned that in school, but think about it. Try mixing some water with air in the sunshine. Not woody! And yet.
Nuggets like that have already helped me make friends at the local vegan market. But if anyone knows of a story narrated by a tree root, I actually would give it a try.