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A policy that could challenge a century of fossil fuel dominance

A time when the United States was primarily powered by wind and solar power could become a reality in just a few years. It doesn't take scientific breakthroughs or technological leaps for clean energy to overtake coal and natural gas, which still dominate 60 percent of the US energy sector. Challenging a century of fossil fuel supremacy in record time would require a comprehensive, underrated policy: a clean electricity standard.

This policy could be "the biggest change in our energy policy since the lights were turned on," Minnesota Senator Tina Smith said in an interview with Vox. She called it the "heart" of Democratic climate policy under President Joe Biden.

One way to understand why these relatively obscure politics are now the focus is to consider what happens without them. Millions of consumers have electrified their cars and devices, and many cities and states are electrifying public services like public transportation – but those activities still get most of their load from dirty power plants. The electricity sector is slowly clearing up and is now powered by around 20 percent from sun and wind and around 20 percent from nuclear power.

But this summer of climate disasters is a living reminder that the transition cannot come soon enough. Yes, Americans are increasingly turning to solar panels to save money, while 30 states and more than 100 cities have set clean power targets – the most ambitious of Oregon's recent adoption of an 80 percent clean energy target by 2030 is not up to speed that is needed to slow catastrophic warming across the planet.

The fate of a federal standard for clean electricity is still very much undecided. The Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill this week that ignores the Biden government's most ambitious climate proposals. Every Senate Democrat must now agree on the clean electricity standard if they are to enforce it through the process known as budget balancing.

A clean power standard is a little misleading because the actual policy being discussed sounds even more boring: a clean power payment program that pays utilities to clean up their work and penalize them for missing deadlines. Still, that approach could effectively double the amount of wind and solar power on the market, moving the country to about 80 percent renewable power sources by 2030 and within reach of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 Biden's pledge under the Paris Climate Agreement.

The move to clean energy – perhaps dubbed a "revolution" too early – has so far been "incremental, incoherent," said Pam Kiely, climate expert at the Environmental Defense Fund. She says Washington is finally realizing the urgent need for "mandatory requirements that ensure you get the results you want."

The “multiplier effect” of a clean electricity standard

Do the math, say climate experts, and there is no way to tackle the climate crisis without cleaning up the electricity sector.

Two of Americans' greatest contributions to climate change are transportation and electricity usage. You can reduce your carbon footprint by making your home more efficient, installing a solar panel, and even buying an electric car – and the electricity that flows out of your wall socket is much cleaner than it was a decade ago. But coal and natural gas are mostly still the status quo. That reality limits the effects of well-intentioned actions: a coal-fired power plant might charge your Tesla, and gas might power your office's air conditioning.

"If we electrify cars so they don't depend on oil and electrify buildings so they don't leak gas, then what they rely on can't be as dirty as what was replaced," said Sam Ricketts, a senior Advisor to the Evergreen Action climate group.

If you live in one of the states that have their own standard for clean electricity, that electricity may become cleaner. Three hundred and forty-five coal-fired power plants have retired or will retire across the country in the past decade, according to the Sierra Club. This means that 185 activated carbon power plants are still in operation in the country – and worrying that around 250 new gas-fired power plants are to be built in the next 20 years. Since it is economically impossible to keep coal-fired power plants running, a clean electricity standard could drive coal down to zero and slow the growth of natural gas.

"By cleaning up our electricity sector, we can have a dramatic impact on carbon emissions," said Smith. "And if we combine this with other measures to electrify traffic and electrify building heating and cooling, this has a multiplier effect on the entire economy."

In other words, to seriously reduce pollution, the country needs to multitask. As the electric vehicle market is booming and buildings convert to electric heating and cooling, their power sources will also modernize in potentially virtuous ways Cycle: Electricity becomes a larger proportion of US energy consumption and clean electricity becomes a greater proportion of total electricity.

Carbon-free renewable energies have grown significantly, especially in the last 10 years, but fossil fuels still dominate 60 percent of the electricity sector.

The biggest short-term benefits aren't even related to climate change. The continued mining of coal will also reduce the country's air pollution, such as the ozone and fine dust particles that damage people's lungs and hearts. Those gains would easily overshadow what the Environmental Protection Agency achieved under previous presidents, as it would shut down more coal-fired power plants than even President Obama's most effective environmental ordinance, the Mercury and Air Pollutants Ordinance.

And then there are the lives saved, according to a study by Harvard University: By 2030, politics would save 9,200 lives because of the sudden reduction in air pollution. Over the next 30 years that number grows to 317,500 lives saved.

For those pondering the dollar benefits, a clean energy transition would create 500,000 to a million net new jobs over the 2020s, according to a study by the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment in Princeton. "Job losses in the fossil fuel industry are more than offset by an increase in the construction and manufacturing sector in the clean energy sector," the study found. Reducing air pollution also translates into $ 1.7 trillion in benefits through reduced healthcare costs, economic productivity and saved lives, according to the climate think tank, Energy Innovation.

There is a narrow road for Democrats to adopt a clean electricity standard

We now roughly know what a clean energy standard would look like, based on a draft from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that was shared with reporters in July.

Biden first woven many of his ambitious climate policies into a $ 3.5 trillion infrastructure proposal, which was then split into two parts – a bipartisan bill that needed 60 votes to avoid a filibuster and a maneuver that is known as reconciliation and allows Democrats to pass a budget with a simple majority of votes.

The vision that environmentalists have pushed and supported Smith would reward utility companies for adopting clean energy and punish them for missing their targets. It is a carrot-and-stick approach to prioritize wind and solar over coal and gas and stay on schedule with goals increasing each year. The Democrats' original reconciliation proposal provides $ 150 billion for a clean electricity standard to achieve 80 percent clean energy by 2030.

However, this is only a framework, and these numbers could change significantly. It's too early to know if Republicans and moderate Democrats will oppose the clean electricity standard, as they have done with some of Biden's other climate ambitions – arguing, for example, that the federal government shouldn't pick winners and losers in the private sector, or that such a policy is an inefficient use of taxpayers' money. Key Senate Democrats who were critical of the final vote were sometimes skeptical of the total cost of the Reconciliation Act.

Ricketts, with Evergreen Action, dismissed concerns about the price. "We know that this energy transition comes at a cost," said Ricketts. He argues that those costs could end up on consumers' energy bills instead if the federal government doesn't step up.

“If we are to make the clean energy transition, we need to make sure the investments reach every region and benefit every community,” Ricketts added. He calls the clean energy proposal "a progressive job creation policy to drive an effective transition to clean electricity over the next decade".

Even among supportive Democrats in Congress, there is some debate about how to account for fossil fuels that promise to capture and store their pollution, and how to treat natural gas, which is still a contributor to climate change but emits fewer CO2 than that Money. Many environmental groups have labeled carbon capture and natural gas as the "wrong solutions" to climate change.

Since the US rejoined the Paris Agreement in the early days of Biden's presidency, the Democrats have had an added incentive to adopt permanent climate policies. To prove that if the next president is a climate change denier, its agenda won't disintegrate in a couple of years, the United States could show up for the next major international climate conference – which will be held this fall in Glasgow – with a freshly made budget, that moves the country to 100 percent clean energy. Or it could come away empty-handed without a serious plan to meet Biden's goal of 50 percent reduction in overall climate pollution by 2030.

The democratic leaders confirmed this in a press conference last Wednesday. "My great hope is that we will go to Glasgow with a great climate bill that will demonstrate our commitment to our Paris goals," said California MP Mike Levin, one of 134 House representatives who sent a letter calling for 100 percent clean Electricity until 2035.

Smith also sees this as a pivotal moment: “I don't see how you can meet our climate goals, nor how you can meet our clean energy job creation goals and a healthier, fairer economy without these kinds of bold policies . "

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