Although COVID-19 will likely take center stage in the 2020 presidential election, the climate crisis is also a pivotal issue. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy like solar will be a hot topic on this year’s debate stage and beyond.
President Trump has long held an unfavorable view of renewables, even though his administration approved a 690-MW solar, 1,400-MWh storage project on federal land outside Las Vegas earlier this year. The project will likely be the eighth-largest solar power facility in the world when finished. Most supportive renewable policy, though, has come from state governments since 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden released a climate plan over the summer that closely resembles Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s former Green New Deal campaign proposal. Biden’s plan would establish national goals of 100% clean energy by 2035 and 500 million solar panels installed within five years, including eight million rooftop and community energy systems.
The source of Biden’s new climate goals are recommendations from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, made up of Former Sec. of State John Kerry, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other legislators and energy leaders.
Adam Browning, executive director of Vote Solar, said Biden’s plan builds upon the policies of eight states that have already passed 100% clean energy requirements.
“This is something that will come with a lot of jobs and, frankly, a lot of savings, as wind and solar are one of the most cost competitive new-build generating resources that there are,” Browning said. “The focus on 100% clean energy is really wildly popular.”
SEIA president Abby Hopper was glad to see the plan look at the larger picture of greening the grid.
“He talks a lot about not just putting panels on roofs and in utility scale projects, but also talked about transmission, about siting, about storage, so he paints a larger vision for a clean energy economy and a clean energy transformation, which I think is so important to actually radically modernizing our energy system,” Hopper said.
Jean Su, energy justice program director and staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, emphasized the importance of the rooftop and community solar system piece of the plan.
“One of the key parts about what we are trying to accomplish is an emphasis and a prioritization on distributed and rooftop and community solar because of all the far greater benefits those deliver than other alternatives,” Su said. “Utility-scale definitely has its role, but all of those other benefits are actually key to making our society work.”
Above all, locally sited solar is crucial for resilience in times of increasing extreme weather due to climate change, Su said.
“In these moments of hurricanes and record climate-induced heat waves, people are dying if they do not have their air conditioning and if they do not have their refrigeration for life-saving medicines. So this is actually a matter of life and death,” she said. “That’s why that resilience benefit that only can be accomplished through rooftop solar or community solar very close to you is key to our future, and the utility model doesn’t allow for that. Switching out a fracked gas plant for a utility-scale solar plant doesn’t account for that.”
Su doesn’t think Biden’s plan goes far enough to ensure that level of reliability and access to locally sited solar for all. To fill in the gaps, the Center for Biological Diversity has published a #ClimatePresident Action Plan outlining 10 steps the next commander in chief can take to attack the climate crisis and fundamentally overhaul utilities in their first 10 days in office.
“Because of the climate emergency in particular, that mission of utilities to serve the public interest is actually no longer holding. That promise has been broken when you are actively dragging your feet in terms of the clean energy transition, when you’re actively stifling out and murdering distributed solar, when you are perpetuating the fossil fuel crisis that is acting against the public interest,” Su said.
To address these issues and more, the Center’s 10-step checklist for the next president includes using powers that already exist that could be triggered by declaring the climate crisis a national emergency.
“In the clean energy context, we will be asking the president to use that authority and basically say, ‘Hey, we have a huge need right now to replace our dirty power infrastructure with clean power infrastructure and to get community solar and distributed solar off the ground,'” Su said.
Environmental justice and solar policy
The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force also emphasized the need to ensure the clean energy transition doesn’t leave behind vulnerable communities most affected by harmful fossil fuels.
“All Americans should benefit from the clean energy economy — especially those who have been left out and left behind for generations,” the recommendations read. To that end, the task force commits to creating an environmental justice fund to make investments that eliminate legacy pollution that disproportionately affects communities of color, low-income communities and indigenous communities.
Browning said 100% clean energy is not achievable without a strong focus on an equitable, inclusive energy system that works for everyone.
“We’ve seen this really at the state level already when you look at the coalitions that were built that provided the political power in order to pass, say, California’s 100% clean energy bill two years ago, or last year the seminal one in New York,” he said. “Both of these had really strong environmental justice leaders that paved the way and a real focus on equity as well.
“It turns out that the larger, the bigger your vision, the more partners you have in achieving it,” Browning continued.
A transition to 100% clean energy means putting other types of energy generation out of business. That means people working in the fossil fuel industry will lose jobs. The task force recommends making plans to integrate former fossil fuel workers into clean energy fields and create training opportunities for other populations typically underrepresented in renewables such as people of color, low-income Americans, women, veterans and people with disabilities.
“I think it is incredibly important to think about all the impacts of this type of transformation and that centrally includes providing a just transition for people whose jobs will be impacted,” Browning said.
Speed of transition
The solar industry has grown in the past four years despite federal pushback, from trade tariffs to the Trump administration calling SEIA a “loose confederation of Chinese solar companies.”
“The current administration denies that climate change is something to deal with,” Browning said. “Their approach is similar to their approach to the coronavirus — deny that it’s a problem and actively work against the necessary solutions.”
Still, 2020 was set to be the industry’s biggest year ever until COVID-19 came along. Part of solar’s success leading up to 2020 was the supportive state policies encouraged by grassroots advocacy.
“Most electricity decisions are made at a state level,” Browning said. “We’ve seen enormous progress because wind and solar are the cheapest new energy resources and you see state and local leaders seeing that it’s on them. They can’t wait for the cavalry to come to the rescue.”
Browning said in 2018, there was something like 1,400 candidates running for public office on a 100% clean energy platform, eight of which became governors who have now followed through with 100% clean energy legislation.
Market forces will also continue working in favor of solar no matter who the president is.
“Demand of customers, demand of utilities, demand of corporates will continue regardless of the occupant of the White House,” Hopper said. “But there are things that can facilitate our growth or can hinder it.”
Such things include presidentially appointed positions like the director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy. For example, FERC rulings can either encourage or discourage the ability of renewables to compete with fossil fuels, the Department of the Interior determines rental rates for public lands for solar projects and the DOE funds solar energy research and development.
Still, Browning and Hopper agreed the clean energy revolution is coming regardless of federal support.
“Given the economic benefits and imperative, this is a sea change that cannot be held back,” Browning said. “The only question is the timing and the amount of work that it will take to actually see this vision through.”
If Joe Biden is elected president in 2020, the two executives believe the clean energy transition will happen much faster.
“Biden’s plan would accelerate vastly and really unite the country around the achievement of this goal,” Browning said.
2020 marks ten years left to limit climate change catastrophe, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The next president’s actions over the following four or eight years will determine whether this country can accomplish that goal.