Revitalizing Our Economy and the Environment

Five Critical Pieces of a Comprehensive Clean Energy Strategy

Bracken Hendricks and Tina Ramos outline the five critical pieces that any comprehensive clean energy bill must include and why we need reform now more than ever.

A worker installs a wind turbine in a wind farm. (AP)
A worker installs a wind turbine in a wind farm. (AP)

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BP’s disastrous uncontrolled oil eruption continues beneath the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the health and livelihood of fishermen, ecosystems, and communities from the Mexican coast to the Florida Keys. It’s more important than ever for U.S. voters to have a serious debate about fixing our unsustainable energy path.

Rebuilding our economy on the foundation of energy efficiency and clean renewable energy is essential to protect against further environmental catastrophe, and it is the best way forward for workers, industry, and strong communities.

Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) released a draft of their American Power Act climate bill on Wednesday. It places a firm limit on carbon emissions and puts a price on pollution so the economy recognizes the true cost of poor energy choices. This is an important, but still incomplete, step in the climate and energy debate.

Capping and pricing carbon emissions is key to well-crafted policy to rein in greenhouse gases. But there are five key policy areas to build a low-carbon economy that will drive investment in high-paying jobs, clean technology, and new industries. The American Power Act includes some of these investment-driving policies, and others exist within energy bills that have been passed in the House and Senate. It is essential that these five pieces be moved together as components of a single comprehensive strategy to build a low-carbon economy in the United States.

First, we must focus efforts to reduce oil dependence on vehicles and transportation infrastructure since 70 percent of oil is used in this sector and two-thirds of this is for passenger vehicles. Making vehicles more fuel efficient, commercializing electric vehicles, developing cleaner alternative fuels, and investing in public transportation infrastructure would be the fastest ways to reduce oil use while promoting innovation in the auto industry.

Second, we must place a high priority on establishing a strong national renewable energy standard that would require at least 25 percent of energy to be produced from renewable sources by 2025. A national RES would foster the long-term market stability essential to our competitiveness in renewable energy manufacturing—since 30 countries already have a robust RES—and would ensure that investment capital flows into developing new projects.

Firm market demand for renewable energy would also create jobs in every region of the country. Colorado’s 30 percent RES by 2020 has made Colorado home to more than 1,500 clean energy companies—up 18 percent since 2004 to make it the state’s fastest-growing economic sector—and the fourth-highest concentration of clean energy workers in the country. This is a model for the nation.

Third, we must make buildings more energy efficient. Energy efficiency is the cheapest, cleanest, and most abundant source of energy we have. Buildings account for 70 percent of all U.S. electricity consumption and 40 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Retrofitting buildings to be more efficient is an effective way to reduce global warming pollution and put construction workers back on the job at a time when we have 25 percent unemployment in the building and construction trades.

Fourth, the federal government must play a role in ensuring that financing is available for new clean energy investments. Programs established in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—such as the grant program to aid wind farm developers, loan guarantee programs to support renewable energy projects, and advanced manufacturing tax credits—can jump start the production of clean energy in the short term. But we must supplement these measures with stable, long-term financing mechanisms for the development and commercialization of clean energy technology. One way to provide low-cost financing for the commercialization of clean energy is through a public “Green Bank” that works in partnership with the private sector to open credit markets and motivate businesses and entrepreneurs to invest in energy innovation.

Finally, we must make sure to do no harm. The federal government lagged behind the rest of the world on clean energy during the last decade, and states and local governments from New Mexico to Texas to Pennsylvania led the way in demonstrating that clean energy creates more jobs, better public health, and more vibrant economies. National policy must not roll back state and local innovators’ ability to continue to lead. But it is also important to allow federal authorities like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate in the public interest in light of the BP oil spill disaster. The American Power Act limits states’ and the EPA’s authority in key ways, and these measures should be reconsidered.

The recent legislation introduced by Sens. Kerry and Lieberman may be imperfect, but it is an important step in the right direction. We must rein in carbon emissions for the health of the planet. But we will do this best if we use these policy mechanisms to build vibrant new industries and create new jobs from the efficient use of renewable energy. A comprehensive climate strategy will revitalize America’s economic engine.

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Bracken Hendricks is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Bracken Hendricks

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