Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
…when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
….The game's afoot:
— Henry V/Wm. Shakespeare
I don’t doubt the nation’s transition to a clean energy economy will continue after The D is inaugurated in January. Economics, a rapidly growing number of companies owning responsibility for their carbon emissions and ordinary people acting on behalf of future generations underpin the trend towards environmental sustainability.
How far and fast the transition will occur is in part dependent on the actions of the federal government. Sustainability is a family affair requiring the collaboration of many public and private sector actors. Its achievement is the consequence of shared responsibilities.
One may argue the finer points of today’s federal clean energy and environmental policies and programs. What cannot be convincingly argued, however, is the pivotal importance of federal participation in establishing uniform environmental standards and a reasonably level commercial playing field.
I have been in the business of renewable energy for a very long time; and, in that time, I have never been so apprehensive about the future of federal clean energy and environmental policies and programs. Under usual circumstances I would view a change of administrations as simply part of the natural ebb and flow of politics—confident that interruptions of the political space/time continuum will, with a bit of patience, re-establish a workable, if not working, equilibrium.
Today’s circumstances are hardly usual. The contentiousness, frustration, enmity, quarter-truths, total lies and recriminations of the 2016 elections, appear certain to be carried forward in the formation and operation of the new administration.
Many skirmishes between climate deniers and defenders will be fought before a new national clean energy and environmental agenda emerges. The battle lines are just now forming.
Divination of successful advocacy strategies by the clean energy and environmental communities requires a reasonable understanding of what actions the Trumpeters are likely to attempt. The following is my guesstimate of what they will endeavor to do within the first year of office.
I will be following-up this discussion with my evaluation of available counter-measures that may be taken to preserve a meaningful federal role in the transition to a clean energy economy and a sustainable environment.
Trumpian targets of action and reaction:
Actions consistently promised or implied by The Donald and his doyens include:
In addition to the above list of actions and reactions looms the persistent threat of a presidential veto of any policy, program or action introduced into the Congress considered contrary to Administration priorities of promoting fossil fuels or intended to combat global warming.
In fairness to the in-coming Administration, not all federal incentives, policies and programs will be laid upon the block. Tax credits benefitting wind and solar will likely remain in place and permitted to phase out in accordance with existing law. It is also possible: Governor Perry will continue to support wind as the Secretary of Energy; and, Mr. Tillerson will encourage The D to follow in the footsteps of Exxon and recognize that anthropogenic climate change is real. The exact nature of any possible support is total speculation.
Will History Repeat?
This is the second time in this still young century that environmental regulation and renewable energy have been targeted by a hostile administration. The first full frontal assault on federal clean energy/environmental policies, programs and regulations occurred during the term of G.W. Bush.
Led by Vice President Cheney, a one-time chairman of the board and CEO of Haliburton, appointees within the White House and federal agencies worked actively to: distort the findings of federal climate scientists; dismiss the threat of climate change; and derail or diminish the work of the Department of Energy, NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency.
In addition, the Bush administration endeavored to: gut key sections of the Clean Water and Air acts; cripple the Superfund program; cut EPA's enforcement division by nearly one-fifth; and refrain from fining environmental violators.
An investigation by Rolling Stone, corroborated by numerous other organizations and investigators, revealed:
…those distortions were sanctioned at the highest levels of our government, in a policy formulated by the vice president, implemented by the White House Council on Environmental Quality…
…administration scientists and climate-policy officials – confirm[s] that the White House has implemented an industry-formulated disinformation campaign designed to actively mislead the American public on global warming and to forestall limits on climate polluters.
Although many Bush administration actions were overturned by the courts, the tag team of Cheney and Rove succeeded in slowing the momentum building towards the end of the Clinton/Gore administration. Market reality is such that fossil fuel interests know time is not on their side.
The cumulative and increasingly visible harms of pollution, e.g. unsafe water supplies and the rise in respiratory disease, will ultimately force government to regulate harmful emissions. Realistically, then, success for anti-regulators is not repeal but delay.
In so far as legal challenges to the Administration’s promised environmental deregulation will tie things up in the court for years, they succeed. They also succeed by:
The Trump administration’s first success is already occurring. By nominating known deniers, many of whom have ties to the fossil fuel industry and are opposed to the agencies they are being asked to lead, the President-elect has guaranteed a contentious and drawn out confirmation process. Leaderless agencies sit; they do not run.
The G.W. Bush years offer a glimpse of what the future will hold under a Trump administration. The differences between then and now suggest only that the Trumpeters will be more adamant and accomplished in their performance.
Trump’s victory came as a surprise to all—including His-Self. The fossil fuel industry has been given an unexpected opportunity to slow the considerable momentum built up during the Obama administration. I simply cannot imagine a less than a no-holds-barred effort by Trump’s appointees—who undoubtedly see this as one of the last opportunities to control the clock.
The fact that the President-elect, along with many of his appointees and advisors, are wealthy Washington outsiders, having homes to go to after public service, makes them much less constrained by the chains of conventional politics. Moreover, many of the nation’s voters are currently willing to give the anti-establishment latitude in the performance of their duties.
The different targets of Trumpeter attack dictate the need for a variety of defenses. Look for an analysis of available actions the clean energy and environmental communities can employ in the next installment of the What Now series.
Why, sometimes, I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
--Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
Let’s see, where was I? I remember—I promised to describe A Republican Energy Efficiency Reinvestment Act (AREER); the beginning of an idea I thought would fit neatly within the policy parameters of the incoming administration.
The strength of the idea lies in its simplicity and compatibility with what President Trump seems best able to do: cajole private corporations to pony up money. In this instance for financing a national low-income weatherization fund.
I’m indifferent as to whether Trump cajoles, threatens, dares, squeezes or entices—just as long as he does it. Before you declare me delusional, hear me out.
My idea is not nearly as impossible nor indefensible as you might think. It is, in fact, good business and even better politics. It plays to the President-elect’s strengths, his flair for the dramatic and is consistent with what appears to be his management style.
I envision AREERA coming about more or less as it does in the following scenario---
Drawing on his knowledge and experience as a builder, the President confidently highlighted some of the fund’s economic benefits.
Aware of the connection between energy efficiency, renewable energy measures and the environment, Mr. Trump believes the fund will demonstrate his Administration’s support for sustainability. He also hoped his proposed efficiency fund and willingness to maintain the tax credits for renewables already on the books would demonstrate his personal commitment to an all-of-the-above energy policy.
Trump was quick to point out his plan helped Americans--not the crooked Chinese; and, he emphasized his approach wouldn’t be throwing coal miners out of work in the process.
The President was confident his plan would do more for the environment than the Clean Power Plan ever could and pledged to work with Congress to amend further the federal tax code to encourage private participation in AREERA.
The President concluded the meeting by saying he asked his daughter Ivanka to head the organizing effort and that he expected the fund to be up and running before the end of the year—even if funds were not fully committed.
Mr. Trump’s enthusiasm for the program and the positive outcome of the meeting was evidenced in his own brand of communication, as seen the copy of the Tweet he released immediately at the conclusion of the meeting.
Back from The Future
A national weatherization program of sufficient size has been wanting for years. Neither the need nor the benefits of a national efficiency retrofit project can be seriously disputed.
The closest the nation has come to actually making the required investment was the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA). The $5 billion of ARRA money for weatherization merely scratched the itch—it did not stop it. The Clean Power Plan offered the hope of big bucks from the sale of carbon credits—a hope likely now never to be realized.
Environmental justice for low-income and at-risk individuals has been delayed far too long. Should the above fiction become fact, President Trump will be right when he recites the many benefits of a $15 billion revolving energy efficiency fund.
Reliance on federal appropriations, utility investments and state budgets is risking the health and welfare of America’s underserved citizens and failing to capture the socio-economic benefits such a program carries with it. Could President Trump do what chief executives before him could not? I don’t know.
What I do know is that we should not dismiss out of hand Mr. Trump’s willingness or capacity to bring private and public forces to bear on a problem thought intractable.
Whatever you or I may think of him—or the deal he just cut with Carrier—the fact is 1,000 Hoosiers, who would otherwise have faced 2017 wondering how to feed their families, are resting a bit easier. The only way to find out if Mr. Trump is as good a businessman as he would have us believe is to propose plans he can understand and might support.
Next in the What Now Series
A successful national low-income weatherization program will improve the economics of community-power projects. Look for the next installment in the series when I will discuss the growth of distributed systems in The Age of Trump.
You may call it 'nonsense' if you like, but I've heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!
SAID THE RED QUEEN TO ALICE/Through the Looking-Glass…
There is a saying that the two things you should never see made are laws and sausage. As a political activist from the city once hailed as HOG Butcher of the World, I can confirm the truth of it.
Today I am adding a third thing to the list—the sometimes working of my mind. This installment of the What Now series focuses on energy efficiency—particularly in low-income communities and for at-risk populations. What follows is but background for what may appear an impossible suggestion. Regarding the impossible, I have two words to offer: President-elect Trump.
Efficiency has never been accorded its proper place in the clean energy and climate policy framework. It is not that policy makers fail to comprehend its foundational importance; it is the multi-faceted nature of the problem they confront when trying to integrate it into the scheme of things.
Renewable energy technologies like solar, wind, biomass and kinetic benefit from having a clear and straightforward purpose—the production of heat and power at competitive rates. The environmental benefits of renewable generating technologies are of course important.
In an economic sense, however, they are additive not pivotal. It is possible to make a compelling case for wind and solar solely on price parity—that is their present and potential price competitiveness.
To be sure, I and every clean power advocate ever known talks about opportunity benefits, e.g. modularity, security, job production and a means for meeting environmental targets, when marketing renewable energy technologies and policies. Absent the proven potential to match the price of fossil fuels, however, renewables go nowhere.
Well, that’s a bit harsh. Let’s say they would go somewhere, only more slowly. Witness the commercialization pace of woody biomass, tidal and other second tier renewables.
Notwithstanding that the abstract value of efficiency is readily recognizable, its market value tends towards the situational. Depending upon a person’s particular circumstances, e.g. who and where they are in the cosmos, efficiency may be a boon for you and a bust for your neighbor.
Centralized power merchants, for example, have been known to view efficiency negatively because it decreases demand. On the other hand, decentralized system sellers—particularly in the residential market—often embrace efficiency. Smaller systems are comparatively less costly, leading to shortened payback periods.
For low-income communities and at-risk populations, e.g. unemployed blue collar workers and seniors, the benefits of efficiency are not entirely energy-centric. Assigning a value to efficiency for these groups is complicated—involving health, employment, the difference between eating and heating and needed home improvements.
Yes, I know: renewables exhibit many of these same value propositions. They don’t, however, achieve them as neatly, easily or quickly for all groups. I am not denigrating the worth of renewable energy technologies; I am simply saying the value of their currency for some is not what it might be for others.
It is important to have an energy efficiency policy unburdened by renewables. Lumped with solar, wind and other energy technologies within an energy/environment policy framework, efficiency invariably and immediately faces a competitive disadvantage.
Look no further than the Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP) within the Clean Power Plan (CPP). Although the CPP recognizes the importance of efficiency, EPA has chosen to conjoin solar and efficiency in both extra credit pools.
States are given a great deal of latitude in deciding how to meet their environmental targets. The CEIP and the Plan are indifferent to whether emissions targets are met because of greater power production from cleaner sources or reduced demand.
A ton of carbon saved is a ton of carbon saved. All things equal, states and utilities are going to follow the path of least resistance. Why wouldn’t they?
Efficiency programs are comparatively costly to administer. A large solar project incurs transaction costs but can realize economies of scale. Weatherization efforts are generally comprised of a series of activities for which fewer economies are available.
Unlike solar or wind projects, efficiency programs also require a system of evaluation, measurement and verification. If X is the amount of carbon emitted per kWh of solar and Y is the carbon value of coal, then all I need do is subtract X from Y to know how much carbon I’m saving.
Efficiency measures require more complicated calculations; and, their operation needs to be verified. Although not difficult, these steps add to program costs.
The probable loss of the CPP is particularly unfortunate in terms of its having highlighted efficiency as a legitimate mitigation strategy and its incorporation of the principles of Environmental Justice (EJ) into the workings of the regulatory scheme.
The CPP by any interpretation is an imperfect vehicle for the promotion of either EJ or efficiency retrofits. It is, however, one of the few programs out there that recognizes and supports—if only in sympathy—energy efficiency in at-risk communities. Weatherization (WAP) and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) remain the nation’s core initiatives to assist low-income populations.
Of the two, only WAP holds any real potential to improve systemically the health and welfare of at-risk populations, while also contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs). LIHEAP is barely more than an income transfer program between the government and utilities—using the misfortune of the ratepayer as a vehicular excuse.
It is not that payment of a utility bill lacks value for the family otherwise facing loss of electricity; it is that such payments do nothing additive to reduce either GHGs or a family’s monthly utility bill.
There are multiple reasons low-income weatherization programs should be playing a more prominent role on the energy/climate stage. These include: lower monthly utility bills; improved indoor/outdoor air quality; workforce opportunities; reduced respiratory and other health problems related to the burning of fossil fuels; less need for new power plants; expanded markets for energy efficiency appliances; and, long-term improvement of the built environment.
The weatherization program is not without its problems. The major one being too few dollars to capitalize the millions of opportunities. The U.S. Department of Energy’s weatherization program sought to weatherize a total of 66,600 residences in FYs 2015-2016. Between 2017 and 2022, an additional 150,000 homes are being targeted.
According to researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, assuming “poverty rates remain stable, the pool of eligible homes would…increase from…35 million to 50 million. Given this projected population increase, one could expect an additional 375,000 additional low-income homes to be eligible for WAP each year. This…in addition to unmet demand.”
The three-year average of annually available federal WAP funds is around $200 million. The inadequacy of funds for weatherization retrofits is obvious. Less obvious is how these tens of millions of homes could realistically form the foundation of a Trump Administration initiative.
I have in mind a new public/private partnership to solve this problem that I am calling A Republican Energy Efficiency Reinvestment Act (AREERA). I believe it could become part of a nativist clean energy/environmental justice agenda paid for largely by private sector investments.
You may call it 'nonsense' if you like, but first hear me out. Unfortunately, you will have to wait until later. Look for the next in the What Now series when I prove that the workings of my mind are somewhat like making sausage.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.