The past month has been a major one for renewable energy in Washington. On the heels of Hillary Clinton’s proposal to boost renewable energy came President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which sets new EPA standards to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Some Republicans, industry groups, business associations, and states have declared they will fight back against the new EPA plan, which Clinton has promised to defend against those she called “Republican doubters and defeatists.” In a political environment filled with climate skeptics and fossil fuel devotees, each plan supplies a breath of fresh air.
Unlike the many candidates who eschew any responsibility for America’s giant-sized greenhouse gas emissions, Clinton—and now Obama—have chosen to tackle our nation’s contribution to climate change head on. While Jeb Bush and other Republicans hide behind professions of their own scientific illiteracy when asked whether they are concerned about climate change, Clinton pithily states, “I’m not a scientist either. I’m just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain, and I know that this is an issue we have to address.”
Clinton’s plan in particular is unabashedly ambitious: to generate “enough clean renewable energy to power every home in America within ten years.” This may sound a bit like Herbert Hoover’s pre-Depression promise of “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” but with the latest recession behind us, Clinton’s goal is a lot more attainable than Hoover’s turned out to be in the years following his 1928 election.
Today we generate about 13 percent of our electricity from renewable sources like hydro, wind, and solar. To meet all U.S. residential electricity needs, these and other clean-energy sources will have to supply about a third of our total U.S. power load—a major leap, to be sure, but with current technology and America’s superabundant renewable energy resources, it’s a challenge we can easily meet.
We may have tapped most of the hydroelectric potential of America’s major rivers, but resource limitations are not an issue when it comes to solar and wind. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), there is enough sunlight hitting America’s residential and commercial rooftops to supply about a fifth of America’s total power needs. A separate study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified enough solar potential on America’s “brownfields”—our abandoned factory sites, closed landfills, and other disused, polluted properties—to provide about seven times our total residential electricity demand. And then there are the vast open deserts of the Southwest and farmlands stretching from coast to coast that hold huge, largely unexploited solar potential—enough to meet all of our electricity needs many times over. Wind power is another resource that can propel us toward—and eventually far beyond—Clinton’s 10-year clean-energy goal. NREL estimates that we have enough good-quality wind in areas without conflicting land uses (urban areas, parks, wilderness areas, etc.) to supply about nine times our total electricity needs nationwide. Throwing offshore wind into the mix, NREL projects that we could be drawing about 14 times our total power needs from this clean-energy resource.
Nationwide, roughly 4.5 percent of our power production today comes from wind. Nine states generate at least 10 percent of their electricity from this resource, and two states, Iowa and South Dakota, get more than a quarter of their electricity from the wind farms within their borders. Most of this impressive growth has happened over the past decade, fueled in part by a federal production tax credit that has made it much easier for wind farms to compete with coal, and even natural gas, as a source of power.
If Clinton’s Vision for Renewable Power is to become reality, we need to get serious about balancing the scales that have been so heavily weighted toward fossil fuels for a century or more. While conservatives find it convenient to bash the federal government’s tax incentives for renewable power, they show no such animosity toward the subsidized ride that fossil and nuclear fuels have long enjoyed.
Jeb Bush talks about phasing out tax credits for oil and gas, along with wind and solar, but is he willing to create true parity between these energy technologies by advancing a fuel-pricing regime that takes account of the full environmental costs of each energy resource, including the disastrous impacts on our global climate from the burning of fossil fuels? And is he ready to eliminate the Price Anderson Act’s liability cap on nuclear reactors, which now limits plant owners’ financial exposure to half-a-billion dollars per accident? Without that federal guarantee, the nuclear industry would have a very hard time staying in business.
In recent days, some have criticized Clinton’s clean energy platform as thin on substance. That may be the case at this early stage, but she weighs in with full support for President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which calls on states to develop and implement concrete plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector. She promises a fight to extend federal clean energy tax incentives; she calls for more renewable energy on federal lands and in federal buildings; she highlights the need for fuller solar access by low-income households; and she rightly flags the need for a more robust interstate electric grid that can accommodate much larger increments of renewable energy.
If Clinton ends up in the White House, her greatest challenge will not be the paucity of detail in her energy proposals but the dogged resistance of a divided Congress to any reforms that weaken the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on the U.S. energy sector. In addition to electing a president with a forward-looking energy vision, our challenge in November 2016 will be to elect a Congress that is ready to translate that vision into federal policies worthy of the 21st century.