Yes, there’s hope for U.S. climate action

August 26, 2020

Public support for climate action is at an all-time high in the U.S.: nearly two-thirds of Americans say the federal government should move more aggressively to restrict power plant emissions, require fuel-efficient cars, and tax corporate polluters. The good news is we’re closer to this goal than we’ve ever been. The bad news is, it all hinges on the November election. Two recent proposals, from Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and from top Congressional Democrats, lay the grounds for a national climate agenda that’s finally meeting the scale of the challenge.

Biden’s July climate plan is a key plank in his Build Back Better agenda, a broad economic recovery plan designed to create jobs and strengthen infrastructure while also tackling climate change. It calls for spending $2 trillion over four years to greatly increase the use of clean energy in the electricity, transportation, and building sectors, with an underlying emphasis on racial equity. The Congressional proposal, unveiled by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) in late June, is a detailed 538-page package that strives to “solve the climate crisis” through a combination of government mandates, tax incentives, and new infrastructure.

Both plans take advantage of our current chaotic moment to lay out an appealing alternative to the status quo—one that will boost, rather than undermine, the country’s long-term resilience. In a July speech, Biden noted that with the economy in crisis, we now have “an incredible opportunity not just to build back to where we were before, but better, stronger, more resilient.”

Biden and the Dems’ plans: more of this, less of of the burn-things-for-energy route

The two plans revolve around a few key areas:

  • Reducing fossil fuels: A dominant solution in both plans is sharply reducing the use of fossil fuels, which in 2019 accounted for 63 percent of U.S. large-scale electricity generation. The Biden plan has an aggressive target to eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035 and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The Congressional Dems similarly aim for zero greenhouse gas emissions (including carbon dioxide and methane) by 2050, with electric utilities becoming net-zero emitters by 2040. In both cases, massive investment in wind and solar power would occur, and the current clean energy tax credits would be extended.
  • Infrastructure and jobs: Both of the climate proposals hinge on creating millions of jobs in the push to build more modern, climate-resilient infrastructure and a clean energy future. “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs’—good-paying union jobs,” Biden told supporters in July. In addition to building new wind and solar plants, Biden’s plan calls for upgrading 4 million buildings to meet the highest energy efficiency standards, and creating a net-zero emissions standard for all new commercial buildings by 2030.
  • Mass transit and electric vehicles: To reduce emissions from the transport sector, Biden’s plan sets a goal to provide “quality public transportation” in cities that have over 100,000 people by 2030. The priority would be on mobility powered by electricity and clean fuels, with a requirement that all new U.S.-made buses be zero-emissions by 2030. He outlines a vision to “position America to be the global leader in the manufacture of electric vehicles and their input materials and parts.” Under the Congressional Dems plan, the federal government would double its investment in mass transit, expand the tax credit for electric vehicles, and mandate that automakers produce only electric cars by 2035.
  • Supporting racial and climate justice: Importantly, Democratic leaders recognize the importance of equity in any discussions around a low-carbon future. Biden’s plan calls for infrastructure investments to address disparities in access to clean air and water and transportation, particularly for communities of color, with the goal for disadvantaged communities to receive 40 percent of all proposed clean energy and infrastructure benefits. It also calls for establishing an office of environmental and climate justice at the U.S. Justice Department.

Gameshow showing GOP vs. Democrats as they answer a question about solving climate change


The Reviews Are In

Neither of the proposals is as bold as the Green New Deal, but they’ve earned a “thumbs up” from groups like the Sunrise Movement that have long been skeptical of federal climate plans to date. The developers of the plans cast a wide net, consulting with climate experts, mayors and governors, union officials, the private sector, Native American tribes, and many others to win support. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, a progressive environmentalist who ran a climate-focused campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, called Biden’s plan both visionary and comprehensive, observing, “This is not some sort of, ‘Let me just throw a bone to those who care about climate change.’”

Still, there are critics (and not just President Trump). Both climate plans leave room for continued generation from nuclear power, a controversial energy source that currently accounts for nearly 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation. Biden’s plan calls for creating a new climate research agency that would work on The proposals also promote other contentious solutions, including (in the case of the Dem’s plan) a carbon tax that would put a price on carbon and (in the case of Biden’s plan) the use of carbon capture and storage, which some critics consider to be a “false solution” to reducing fossil fuel emissions.

There’s also the tricky question of political viability. Biden’s proposal includes a Spending $2 trillion over a four-year period is no small potatoes (until one remembers the astronomical, horrifying costs of not taking bold, urgent action on climate). To cover the costs of his climate plan, Biden proposes, among other measures, increasing the corporate income tax rate to 28 percent (from 21 percent) and “asking the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share.” For its part, the Congressional package may not be ambitious enough for the Dem’s left wing.

Even if Biden wins in November, it’s likely that few of the proposed climate measures will get enacted in their exact current form. But they still have tremendous value. In describing Biden’s plan, writer and activist Bill McKibben observed that the proposals are “a truly useful compendium of the mainstream and obvious ideas for an energy and conservation transition,” and that we need to keep up the pressure to make them a reality. “I think we’ve already reached the point where it’s clear that real change is finally coming….The crucial job of activists, then, is to always be demanding that we move faster.”

In the realm of politics, however, it’s not just up to “activists.” Every citizen with a vote and a voice has a role to play, both at the ballot box and afterwards, as we hold our elected officials accountable on their clean energy promises and push for the change we need to see.

Originally published in the 8/26/20 edition of our Flip the Script newsletter


Buying clean energy = smart biz

August 19, 2020

If you happen to be driving among the corn fields and dairies near Twin Falls, Idaho, you might come across an unexpected sight: a modern building complex, spread over five acres, gleams with a new 2 megawatt (that’s big) solar array, generating enough juice to electrify the equivalent of 280 homes a year. The state-of-the-art system supplies 30 percent of the power needs for a massive commercial bakery owned by snack bar maker Clif Bar, helping the company meet its ambitious climate and energy goals.

Clif Bar is one of thousands of companies going whole hog on a renewable energy future. Last year, the top buyers of wind and solar power in the U.S. were household tech names like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, as well as big retail, telecom, and banking companies like Verizon (which, in April, announced its first-ever clean energy purchase from wind and solar projects in Illinois and Texas). Corporate procurement alone accounted for nearly half (46 percent) of the 20.2 gigawatts of renewables added to the U.S. grid in 2019, according to the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance.

The massive solar installation at Apple's new headquarters
The massive solar installation at Apple’s new headquarters

Why & how businesses are doing it

Reputation-wise, it doesn’t hurt to be on the cutting edge of the biggest energy trend of our time while helping the planet. But it also helps the bottom line. Tech and other large industries need cheap, plentiful electricity to operate their power-hungry data centers and manufacturing hubs scattered around the country. With the price of wind and solar power now competitive with fossil fuels in many places, renewables have become smart business.

Corporations generally take one of three approaches to procure large amounts of renewable energy. If the funding (and solar or wind resource) is available, a company may install an on-site system to produce as much local energy as possible. Alternatively, it may contract directly with a developer to build or purchase the electricity from a dedicated solar or wind farm. In many cases, though, businesses aiming for high shares of clean energy buy renewable energy credits (RECs), which enable them to offset their electricity consumption by purchasing an equivalent amount of renewable power. Wells Fargo and Bank of America both use RECs in their push to operate their facilities, financial centers, and ATMs with 100% renewables.

Buying renewable energy is one of the quickest ways for companies to reduce their carbon footprints. General Motors (GM), one of the first big firms to sign on to the U.S. climate pledge for businesses, announced in February that it was moving up (by a full decade!) its target for 100% renewables, aiming for 2040 rather than 2050. GM recently signed two more utility partnerships to use low-cost solar to run its manufacturing plants. “In the long run, renewables are the cheapest form of new generation, and that’s what everyone is looking for from a financial standpoint,” said Rob Threlkeld, the company’s global manager of sustainable energy, supply, and reliability. 

The impact of COVID-19

Certainly, the coronavirus pandemic has altered this year’s outlook for corporate renewables, contributing to tighter budgets, lower oil and gas prices, and unanticipated changes to energy demand as more people work from home. Renewable projects are coming online slower than planned due to construction pauses, permitting delays, and supply chain disruptions. Projections suggest that corporation procurement of renewables will likely fall short of last year’s record high.

But the overall outlook remains bright. Industry experts remain confident that even if financial markets are volatile, investment in renewables—which is generally viewed as low risk with stable returns—will continue. Meanwhile, the number of companies making voluntary commitments to transition to 100% clean energy continues to climb, and ripple effects are being seen across the supply chain. After Apple committed to using 100% renewable energy (a goal it achieved in 2018), at least 23 of its suppliers also agreed to a 100% target.

As consumers and citizens, we should support these forward-thinking companies for their renewable ambitions—and pressure their peers — and policymakers on Capitol Hill — in this direction. Businesses have a critical role to play, and now that clean, renewable energy is such a solid win-win-win for them, this sector of our economy must step on the accelerator.

Originally published in the 8/19/20 edition of our Flip the Script newsletter


Can we finally kill off this zombie EV myth?

August 12, 2020

Anyone that’s spent a few minutes googling “electric vehicles” has likely encountered a common misconception around EVs, one that continues to linger around public conversation like a mysterious, persistent body odor: the myth that powering an EV on the electrical grid is actually dirtier than driving on gasoline. (Here’s one example from a week ago, featuring bad math, outdated data, and skepticism about scientific consensus).

Study after study debunks this myth, but in our era of misinformation it seems to have reached zombie status. So get out your chain saw and/or baseball bat, because it’s time we kill off this myth together.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has been producing clear, credible analysis of EV emissions for years. Earlier this year they updated their numbers using newly released 2018 data (yes, this data takes a while to surface, apparently), and the headline couldn’t get much clearer: Are Electric Vehicles Really Better for the Climate? Yes. Here’s why. Here’s the key takeaway: “Driving the average EV produces global warming pollution equal to a gasoline vehicle that gets 88 miles per gallon (mpg) fuel economy.”

Good luck finding a gas car that gets 88 mpg.

Here’s the data broken out by state:

Map of U.S. showing EV emissions as gasoline mpg equivalent

The UCS data shows that even with today’s power grid, switching from a gas car to an electric one saves a ton of carbon emissions for 94 percent of Americans. It’s one of the most impactful things you can do as an individual to reduce emissions. Globally, the numbers are surprisingly similar—driving electric is cleaner than gas in 95 percent of the world.

What makes driving an electric vehicle so much cleaner? Two main reasons:

  1. An electric motor is a far more efficient machine than a gas engine—we’re talking like 3x–6x more efficient. You get way more “bang for your BTU,” as they say (no one says this).
  2. We forget about how much CO2-producing activity goes into getting that gasoline to the pump (the UCS analysis, however, did not forget): “For a gasoline car, that means looking at emissions from extracting crude oil from the ground, moving the oil to a refinery, making gasoline and transporting gasoline to filling stations, in addition to combustion emissions from the tailpipe.”

Of course, the snapshot about EV emissions today is just half of the story. The real kicker is that EVs are getting cleaner by the year. As more clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar come onto our grid, driving an electric car continues to become even cleaner. The latest UCS analysis shows EV emissions improved 10 percent since they last crunched the numbers two years ago. This powered-by-the-grid feature is the whole reason that electric vehicles are a crucial piece of the 100% clean energy puzzle: electrify everything, then power it with clean, renewable energy.

Zombie myth: eliminated. Now we’ve got an entire economy we need to electrify, so let’s get to work. This is one big action you can take right now—no need to wait for anything or ask permission from anyone.

Originally published in the 8/12/20 edition of our Flip the Script newsletter


Electric school buses are ready for primetime

August 5, 2020

For regular readers of our blog, the following statement won’t be new news to you: solar energy is now a smart investment for schools to save money, provide STEM learning opportunities, and contribute to a cleaner, healthier environment for communities. The sky is also blue. Okay, but here’s the second swing of a clean energy one-two punch: electric school buses. The deployment of EV buses has increased rapidly since 2014 when the first all-electric school bus was delivered to the Twin River School District in Sacramento, CA. Over four hundred electric school buses are now operating in the U.S., with numbers projected to rise.

Today, roughly ninety-five percent of America’s school buses run on diesel. These buses move students from point A to point B just fine, but they expose their 25 million daily student riders (and surrounding communities) to diesel exhaust—an internationally recognized cancer-causing agent and “likely carcinogen”. While buses have gotten cleaner since a 2001 study found alarming levels of toxic exhaust occurring inside buses, we can thankfully get rid of the exhaust issue entirely now. Electric buses have zero tailpipe emissions—and thus zero toxic fumes for children.

Diesel school buses expose their 25 million daily student riders to an internationally recognized cancer-causing agent and “likely carcinogen”.

Compared to diesel and natural gas options, electric buses also account for far fewer greenhouse gas emissions, even when charged by grids in regions still powered largely by fossil fuels. Replacing all of the nation’s school buses with electric alternatives could prevent the emissions equivalent of 1.1 million cars. That would certainly be a helpful step toward tackling our nation’s largest source of GHG emissions.

But let’s not forget to talk money. The sticker price for an electric bus is currently two to three times more expensive than a diesel bus, and charging infrastructure ain’t cheap either. This creates a major hurdle for many school districts. The good news, however, is three-fold:

  1. The total cost of ownership over the lifetime of an EV bus already beats out a diesel one. The lower costs of “fuel” and maintenance are where the money’s at (quite literally).
  2. Prices will continue to fall as battery technology improves and the market matures.
  3. Some forward-thinking governments and utilities are helping subsidize these higher upfront costs.

Twin River Unified School District, which operates a fleet of 30 electric school buses and reports savings of up to $15,000 per bus every year. For a school running on solar energy, charging a fleet of electric school buses with sunshine can be even more cost-effective, as “fueling up” with solar energy is cheaper than diesel and generally even cheaper than plugging into the local power grid. (This is a tried-and-true combo—some schools have been doing this since 2010).

Chart showing total lifetime cost of ownership of diesel vs. electric school buses
Source: 2018 report on electric school buses from U.S. PIRG & Environment America

EV buses also open the door to promising emerging technologies around energy storage. As the average school bus is parked 50 percent of the time, its battery becomes a powerful energy asset, allowing the next level of interaction between the vehicle and the surrounding buildings through ‘vehicle-to-building’ (V2B)  or ‘vehicle-to-grid’ (V2G) technology. Using this two-way charging technology, energy can be used when and where needed—whether it’s a bus or a building. Additionally, V2G tech can be used to generate revenue by selling electricity back to the grid at peak times when electricity is more expensive. School districts in California and New York are already doing exactly this: in partnership with tech companies and utilities, they’re reducing the total cost of ownership of their EV school buses by re-selling electricity stored in batteries and by charging when electricity is cheapest (at “off-peak” times). Current V2G pilots suggest that a bus can generate $5,000 to $20,000 per year in electricity revenue, and more pilots are expected to occur in the coming years as all major manufacturer produce V2G capable buses.

Diagram showing how vehicle-to-grid technology works
Source: Dunsky Energy Consulting

The electric school bus is yet another high-impact clean energy solution that’s ready to deploy. And that’s exactly what’s needed now: deployment of existing solutions like EV buses—at a massive scale. It’s go-time.

Originally published in the 8/5/20 edition of our Flip the Script newsletter