Three Climate Priorities the New Congress Can Actually Deliver On

January 17, 2019 | 11:34 am
Photo: Kai Schreiber./CC BY-SA (Flickr)
Rob Cowin
Former Contributor

It’s a new Congress and that means new opportunities to make some progress on addressing the climate crisis and growing our clean energy economy. The political environment is complex and there are significant challenges to progress, but we can’t afford to wait for a more favorable congress. Here are three meaningful climate priorities that actually have a chance to make it to the finish line, even in this environment.

The challenges: It takes 60 votes to pass most legislation in the Senate (still controlled by Republicans; climate action is not a priority). We have a president who is openly hostile to clean energy and rejects mainstream climate science. And much of the new Democratic House majority was elected to put a check on the White House rather than reach compromises. The Speaker will also be looking to protect her many newly elected members in purple districts (the suburbs), which may lessen how ambitious the House will be on climate action.

The need: These dynamics certainly make it difficult to enact aggressive policy that will drive the deep cuts in emissions that we need, but one thing I hope all climate and clean energy advocates recognize is that we don’t have the luxury of getting nothing done over the next two years. Building for potential big opportunities in the future is important, but the science tells us that the climate clock is ticking. We can’t sit this one out hoping we get a pro-climate congress in 2021. We must keep reducing emissions; we have to get meaningful policy enacted this year. That will require hard work, strategic thinking and strong collaboration across all the diverse stakeholders who care about the climate crisis.

The opportunities: What can actually get done right now? What policies can run the gauntlet of Congress and still have a significant impact on reducing emissions?

Here are three ideas that will help significantly reduce emissions and can pass both chambers of congress this year.

1). Robust investments in clean energy research and development

Despite the administration’s shortsighted attempts to gut our nation’s clean energy research and development (R&D) capacity, clean energy innovation has broad public support (85% according to a Yale 2018 poll). It also has bipartisan support. Under the leadership of Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA), funding for low-carbon technology R&D has increased over the last two years. Funding for ARPA-E, our nation’s flagship innovative clean energy research and development program, has increased roughly 20% over that time. Republicans and Democrats both see investments in clean energy R&D as a pro-growth strategy that is good for the economy, their states and the country.

Source: Wikimedia

While the increases in funding are significant in a Republican congress, it’s still far short of what is required to develop and hone the tools we need to address the growing scale of the climate crisis. We need more options and we need to continue to increase the effectiveness of the options we currently have. A massive investment in low-carbon technology R&D can help make that happen. Federal R&D helped us split the atom and get to the moon; it can certainly help us innovate our way to more climate solutions and emissions reductions.

There are many important clean energy R&D programs spread across the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy that need increased funding:

  • the Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences (BES)
  • the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Grid Integration Initiative
  • the Office of Electricity, Energy Storage Program
  • the Operational Energy Management Capability Investment Fund (OECIF)
  • the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP).

But the Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Energy program (ARPA-E) is perhaps the best example of where a massive investment is needed. ARPA-E pioneers transformational energy projects that represent high-risk but potentially game-changing technologies. ARPA-E also provides technology-to-market advice to best performers.

The National Academy of Sciences’ report that recommended ARPA-E’s creation also recommended that its funding be stabilized at $1 billion per year within four years of its inception (that was back in 2007). ARPA-E is currently funded at $366 million, but a recent assessment by the National Academy of Sciences revealed that “ARPA-E is in many cases successfully enhancing the economic and energy security of the United States,” making it a wise federal investment.

It’s time to make a “space race”-scale or “Manhattan Project”-scale type investment in low carbon energy research and development. And with a Democratic House and strong Senate Republican leadership on Energy and Water Appropriations, there may be a good opportunity to make robust investments in clean energy R&D, finally resourcing our nation’s innovative capacity and unleashing the power of innovative technological growth.

2). Tax credits to stimulate more clean energy, energy efficiency and grid technologies

Most of the progress we’ve made reducing emissions and incentivizing the deployment of low carbon energy technologies at the federal level has come through the tax code. A 2016 UCS analysis showed that the 5-year extension of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind and the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar will reduce CO2 emissions by 31% cumulatively through 2030. That’s huge.

But these tax credits are starting to phase down and the PTC expires end of next year, jeopardizing the strong clean energy momentum we are seeing across the country. Continued strong growth of renewable energy in the near term will still necessitate federal tax support and other incentives—especially to rapidly build out and replace fossil generation at scale in a time-frame appropriate to what the climate science is telling us. It’s important for Congress to remember clean energy doesn’t currently compete on a level playing field with gas and coal, because the impacts of carbon emissions are not priced into most electricity markets.

Fortunately, as with appropriations, there is a pathway in the Senate for strengthening (and potentially broadening) tax credits for clean energy. In fact, about half of the Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee represent states with large renewable energy industries. That includes Chairman Grassley (R-IA), sometimes referred to as the “father” of the PTC, who represents a state that gets 37% of its electricity from wind power (supporting 9,000 jobs).

There’s also a history of bipartisan support for a low-carbon, technology-neutral approach to energy tax policy that provides greater long-term certainty and levels the playing field for all low-carbon energy technologies. Recent legislation introduced to expand the ITC to stand-alone energy storage projects has also received bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

Energy storage is the key to making renewable energy ubiquitous. It also has important reliability and energy security benefits.  It’s a critical piece of the clean tech puzzle and this congress can has a real opportunity to incentivize more deployment of energy storage through the tax code.

3). Infrastructure that reduces our vulnerability to climate impacts and modernizes our electric grid

Democrats and Republicans both agree that we must upgrade our aging infrastructure, and the federal government should play a role.  They don’t agree on how much of a role and what the primary mechanisms should be (public-private partnerships, federal grants, states funds, federal loan guarantees, direct federal investment, etc.…). But as with many other policy issues, there’s plenty of room for common ground, and whether its sewage leaking into Penn Station or crumbling rural roads and bridges or antiquated and vulnerable electricity systems in island communities, Americans want and deserve reliable infrastructure.

A 2016 Gallup poll showed 75% of Americans support “spending more federal money to improve infrastructure.”  In 2017 infrastructure polled as the second most popular issue for President Trump, right behind family leave for parents of newborns.

But when the president finally unveiled his infrastructure proposal early last year, there was very little federal money in it. In fact, most of the spending under his plan would have come from already-strapped state budgets with some spending from private interests. There was very little direct federal investment and no focus on reducing vulnerability to extreme weather and climate change. The modernization of important sectors like the electricity sector and the transportation sector were ignored, important environmental protections were gutted, and it included regressive policies that discourage infrastructure development in economically vulnerable communities.

What’s the opportunity for climate progress in an infrastructure bill? How about getting to 100% clean energy? Getting anywhere near that is going to take modernizing our electric grid.  We need big increases in transmission, energy storage, distributed generation, and advanced grid technologies.

We can’t solve the climate crisis if we don’t quickly decarbonize our electricity sector, phasing out our use of fossil fuels, increasing energy efficiency, maintaining the low carbon generation we have, and building out a lot more renewables.

We likely won’t avoid the worst impacts of climate change without electrifying the transportation sector (now the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US) and building out infrastructure for electric vehicles.

And we won’t protect communities and livelihoods from devastating climate impacts like wildfires, drought, hurricanes and floods if we don’t invest in preparedness—especially in economically vulnerable communities and communities of color.

We need an infrastructure bill that builds for the future, not the past.

Ultimately the president’s partisan (and unhelpful) infrastructure package went nowhere. But in a new congress where the House is poised to take up infrastructure, there’s a lot of Senate Republicans up in 2020, and the President badly needs a win heading into his re-election campaign, there may be a pathway for infrastructure this year.

Both the Senate Minority Leader and the Speaker of the House have signaled that addressing climate change must be a key part of any infrastructure package. And while Senate Republicans have expressed support for moving forward with infrastructure, ultimately it will be up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the president to decide if there’s room to compromise to do what’s best for the country.

So while we must increase our vigilance advocating with Congress for an FDR-sized approach appropriate to the urgency and scope of the climate crisis, we must also make progress where opportunities exist. Even in this challenging political environment, there are opportunities to advance federal policy that significantly contributes to reducing emissions and protects communities and livelihoods from climate change. We cannot afford federal climate policy to be stagnated by partisan politics.

We need to create a durable bipartisan super-majority for action on climate. What better time to start than now?