Senate Misses a Chance to Build Clean Energy Economy
By Cai Steger
Used with permission of NRDC – Switchboard
An important vote took place March 13 on a critical bill to extend renewable energy and energy efficiency incentives in the Senate. Many of these policies either have expired or are about to expire at the end of this year, and this bill (introduced by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) as an amendment to the Transportation bill) would have extended those incentives, providing vital support for our growing clean energy economy.
Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the vote “failed” 49 to 49. This is certainly not the final word on these incentives, and advocates will continue to aggressively seek their extension as other legislative opportunities arise.
Still, for clean energy companies and investors it creates further uncertainty and complexity in an already complex business. For supporters of clean technologies solutions, it represents another challenge as we try to create new American jobs, clean up our environment, and regain our leadership in the global clean energy economy.
How much is at stake with these incentives? A lot.
A recent study by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) gives us some data to show how far we’ve come with clean technologies, and how much is at risk. Briefly, CBO calculated how much the government spent on energy technologies in one year (technically, they scored two types of energy subsidies for 2011 looking at both tax preferences like tax credits and deductions, and spending by the Department of Energy on energy technologies, although there’s a lot of nuance they skipped).
Through this effort, CBO calculated $24 billion in government subsidies for fuel and energy technologies in 2011. About $16 billion of those were for tax credits and deductions provided to renewable energy and energy efficiency. The remainder ($3.5 billion) was spending by the Department of Energy (DOE) on research and development in energy technologies, with about half of that pot going to renewables and energy efficiency.
The end result—$20 billion for clean energy in 2011. That’s a huge win. After decades of arguing about the need for a strong commitment by the government to develop alternative technologies, and the importance an aggressive ramp-up of clean energy investment, we’ve reached a milestone where renewable technologies and energy efficiency received more funding in one year than fossil fuel technologies.
Unfortunately, 2011 is not representative of U.S. energy policy, nor should it be used, by itself, as a datapoint to represent what’s happening in energy policy. As the CBO study points out, the vast majority of the incentives for renewable energy and efficiency either expired at the end of 2011, or are expiring this year. Big chunks of DOE funding were one-time expenditures from the Stimulus. Put another way, 2011 could be the fond memory we look back on as the clean energy sector hurtles down a cliff. And, as demonstrated by the vote on March 13, policymakers don’t seem ready to do anything about it. Is this any way to build a new industry and lead the world towards a cleaner and safer future?
Digging Deeper into the CBO Study
Of course, the CBO is the kind of nuanced study that can get misconstrued by the press and, unfortunately, will likely wind up being used for political purposes. But if you dig deeper, there’s a much more important story here.
For example, take this chart from the CBO report which shows the value of subsidies provided to specific technologies over the last 30+ years.
Two things jump out—the amount of funding provided to non-clean energy technologies over time (especially compared to clean energy) and the longevity and certainty of that support.
Possibly the two most crucial aspects of effective energy policy designed to support new technologies is the aggregate funding provided during a technology’s early stage, and the creation of long-term policy certainty that allows industry and investors to efficiently plan how best to allocate capital in deploying that new technology. The CBO report goes to some length to point out the historical complexity in calculating energy subsidies and demonstrates that over the last 30 years, in addition to much higher funding amounts, there’s been much greater long-term certainty and economic value given to the fossil fuel industry than clean energy.
A few months back, another mainstream study from Ben Healey and Nancy Pfund at DBL Investors delved into this topic and came up with the same conclusion. It too demonstrated a similar phenomenon—that the overall benefit has been much more heavily weighted in the past 50 years to oil and gas and nuclear.
But back to 2011, where renewable energy and energy efficiency are starting to turn the corner, driven by innovative entrepreneurs, hard working Americans, and government investment in these critical, innovative new technologies.
Some have pointed to this government support as somehow unfair…as if the oil and gas sector hadn’t received twelve times the amount of subsidies over the last 90 years as the renewable industry (chart from the DBL study).
Others say this is a violation of the free market, ignoring the massive amount of support nuclear energy and oil and gas power received in their first thirty years of existence (chart again from the DBL study).
Others still say this spending is a waste—I invite you to view the E2 clean energy jobs newsletter archives, highlighting nearly 300 companies that have hired workers in the clean energy economy in just the last few months, to judge if that’s true. Or the recent Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, that demonstrates the immense growth taking place throughout the clean energy sector.
A brief glance at these charts shows how much more funding has been provided to fossils, both historically and in the previous decades.
But here we are, yet again facing the challenge of high summer gas prices, battling pollution from fossil fuel emissions and being forced to divert resources to address our energy security.
The last few years have finally provided renewable energy and energy efficiency the chance to catch up with fossil fuels—to give us the chance to break the cycle of fossil fuel addiction we’ve been stuck in throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
Incentives and other energy policies for renewable energy and energy efficiency level the playing field, and build on our country’s enthusiasm for these clean technologies, and our aspirations for leadership and a cleaner and healthier future.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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