The Potential of a National Clean Electricity Standard

At a Kleinman Center event, Leah Stokes spoke about her new report that makes the case for a publicly popular and critically important federal Clean Electricity Standard.

Last week, University of California Santa Barbara Associate Professor and prolific energy tweeter Leah Stokes stopped by the Kleinman Center (virtually) to discuss her most recent book, Short Circuiting Policy, as well as her recent publications. The conversation explored topics from the role of interest groups in shaping our energy policy to utilities responsibility in slowing the clean energy transition.

One of the reports Stokes discussed, A Roadmap to 100% Clean Electricity by 2035, was released this month by Evergreen Action and Data for Progress. The report deals with a hot topic in energy policy: a federal Clean Electricity Standard (CES). Stokes and her co-authors make the case that this popular standard is achievable and should be a priority for the new Biden administration.

On the campaign trail, President Biden promised that climate would be a top priority. Since taking office, he has already made strides by issuing a slew of executive orders covering everything from a ban on new oil and gas leases on federal land to elevating climate change as a national security priority. Across cabinet positions, Biden’s hires confirm his commitment to the problem. 

One of the promises made on the campaign trail was cleaning up our electricity system by 2035 with a federal Clean Electricity Standard (CES). A CES would require utilities across the country to increase the amount of clean energy they supply until it accounts for 100% of all electricity supplied. This would be a major tool in curbing our carbon emissions and helping to keep us within the 1.5-degree warming limit crucial to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

Getting to 100% clean electricity will cut more than a quarter of the U.S. carbon emissions and be a catalyst for other sectors to follow, such as transportation, building, and industry. Plus, it is a popular policy with voters. According to the report, two thirds of voters approve of the policy. In fact, one in three Americans already live in a city or state that has made a commitment to 100% clean power.

“Clean energy standard policies are a proven, popular, and practical approach to effectively drive clean energy transformation on the ground,” says the report.

But with the slimmest of Democratic majorities in Congress, how realistic is it that something like the CES could be passed? Due to the 60-vote filibuster, there is little chance a CES would pass during regular congressional business. But there could be an avenue through a process called budget reconciliation, which allows for a simple 51 vote majority on matters related to budget.

Stokes’ report outlines how after months of conversations with experts, CES fits the requirements to be considered through the budget reconciliation process. But even if Congress took up a federal Clean Electricity Standard, it is by no means a slam dunk. Moderate Democratic Senators like Joe Machin of West Virginia would be hard pressed to support a policy that would put coal, a hallmark industry of his state, out of business.

Even if it is a politically tricky maneuver, the stakes are too high to not try. And, as Stokes’ latest report shows, the majority of the public is behind the idea, even if half of Congress is not.

Mollie Simon

Senior Communications Specialist
Mollie Simon is the senior communications specialist at the Kleinman Center. She manages the center’s social media accounts, drafts newsletters and announcements, writes and publishes content for our website, and regularly posts to our blog.