Clean Energy Generates Jobs. Why Does Washington Look Away?
This piece was first published in Forbes on April 30, 2020. It is reprinted with their permission.
It has begun to feel as though Marie Antoinette were setting energy policy in the United States. The people have clamored for good paying clean energy jobs and a resilient energy system to take on looming environmental and climate crises, and the federal government has effectively responded, “Let them eat cake!”
This seemingly absurd analogy came to mind while reading the results of a new survey that finds that Americans overwhelmingly support COVID stimulus funding for the clean energy industry. Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication reported on Monday that 75% of Americans want to see stimulus directed toward the likes of wind and solar power. In turn, just 25% would like to see stimulus funds spent to bolster the fossil fuel industry.
The survey results are only the latest in a stream of data revealing that Americans want their government to do more to grow clean energy and environmental protections. Yet the response of certain conservative lawmakers in Congress has been to circle the wagons and deny what would amount to modest assistance, in the larger scheme of COVID bailouts, to a clean power generation sector that has grown to employ more than half a million people, yet could lose more than 150,000 jobs through the crisis.
In March, Mitch McConnell mocked Democrats for demanding clean energy supports, conveniently overlooking the jobs that could be preserved by extending the proven, though expiring wind production tax credit and the declining solar investment tax credit. McConnell’s opposition to the extension of existing renewable energy tax incentives, whose undiminished value totals $10 billion today, might not appear miserly if it weren’t for the simultaneous endorsement of $58 billion in new stimulus for airlines, an industry that employs just 50% more workers than found in the clean generation sector.
In fact, it seems that the analogy between the former French queen and the controlling powers in today’s Washington may not be so apt, after all. From her plush chambers in the Versailles palace, Marie Antoinette might have been excused for being out of touch with so many of her subjects. Yet the collective blind eye given to the economic and jobs potential of clean energy by McConnell, congressional allies and President Trump, who have drawn their political backing from embattled fossil fuel interests, is informed and willful.
Solar layoffs are already substantial, and the Solar Energy Industries Association expects that as many as half of solar workers will lose their jobs due to COVID. Yet Washington has so far declined to allow the conversion of the ITC to cash payments, or the extension of a crucial safe harbor provision to protect renewables projects from the loss of incentives that result from project delays. The safe harbor extension would cost the government nothing extra, as the tax incentives are already included in the federal budget.
The administration’s efforts to stifle clean energy development extend into the fabric of federal government. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an agency that has historically operated largely free from partisanship influence, recently directed the nation’s largest wholesale electricity market, PJM Interconnection, to implement market rules that will neutralize state efforts to incentivize new carbon-free power generation.
The Republican-dominated FERC, whose commissioners are appointed by the president, pushed the rule even though it tramples the right of the states to set their own electricity policy. It’s an oddly convenient turn for conservatives who have historically been among the foremost defenders of cooperative federalism and states’ rights. Former FERC commissioner Cheryl LaFleur has noted that in recent years “we’ve seen on significant policy cases far more voting along partisan lines and an inability to coalesce in the middle.”
Richard Glick, the FERC’s lone sitting Democratic commissioner, stated in his dissent that the FERC’s ruling was about two things, “dramatically increasing the price of capacity in PJM and slowing the region’s transition to a clean energy future.”
Ironically, the outcome of FERC’s order may prove to be more than the agency had bargained for. Five of the 13 states within PJM are now contemplating an exit from the market. Such an outcome would be a worst-case scenario for the FERC, which has dedicated the past two decades to the nurturing of the nation’s competitive electricity markets, while working largely amicably with the states.
And watch out for the COVID opportunists. As reported by Greentech Media, a nonprofit that calls itself the New England Ratepayers Association has petitioned the FERC to assume “exclusive federal jurisdiction over wholesale energy sales from generation sources located on the customer side of the retail meter.” Translated, the group is asking the FERC to preempt state authority over electric utilities as a first step in undoing net-metering laws that have driven the growth of rooftop solar.
The FERC has set a tight May 14 deadline for public comments on the filing, which may shed light on why NERA has chosen this moment to make its demand. Such a timeline will be difficult for legislatures and agencies from net-metering states, given the challenges of convening under COVID.
And never mind that it is the states that reflect the will of the people these days. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted renewable energy portfolio standards. Those states happen to be home to the overwhelming majority of the country’s population.
Which brings us back to Marie Antoinette. One might reasonably expect her to be understanding of the blind eye turned by certain powers in Washington to the public’s call for clean jobs. She might even be envious of all the active obstruction going on.