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Seven practical steps to save our planet: An interview with Hal Harvey

November 9, 2022

Regardless of the final outcome of the mid-term elections, there are concrete steps that you, individually, can choose to take right now for clean energy progress.

In The Big Fix: 7 Practical Steps to Save Our Planet, co-authors Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis lay out how and why individuals can make a big impact. In this week’s issue, Gen180 Executive Director Wendy Philleo interviewed Hal–a leading strategist in the nonprofit sector’s efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change–on what he hopes readers take away from the book.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. See the full video interview here.

Wendy Philleo: All right. Well, welcome Hal Harvey, good to see you again. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about your new book, which I have here, The Big Fix: 7 Practical Steps to Save Our Planet that you wrote with Justin Gillis. 

Hal Harvey: Thank you. It’s a delight to be here. And I really appreciate the chance for this conversation.

WP: Great. Can you share a little bit about your background and a little bit about why you came to this decision to write this book. Why now?

HH: Sure thing, I’m an engineer by training with degrees in both civil and mechanical engineering. I got involved in the energy business when I turned 18, because I was obligated to go register for the draft, because Jimmy Carter reinstated it in order to build the so-called Rapid Deployment Force in the Mideast, which was aimed at protecting American interests against foreign oil producers. And so that put a pretty sharp focus on the question of oil and oil imports. What I was doing at the time was home construction solar homes with my brother. And we came to realize that it was not very complicated or difficult to build a solar heated home. 

And to have this dissonance on the one hand between getting ready to go to war, not so long after the Vietnam War wound up in its tragic way – and on the other hand, having readily available technologies to save energy. And this was at the time when cars got an average of 13 miles per gallon. So we weren’t just importing [oil] we were wasting it in just copious quantities, we still are.

WP: Your book felt like almost a call out for a revitalization or renewal of civic engagement, in a way, because you talk a lot about citizens flexing their muscle, exercising influence and finding these levers – sometimes secret levers, because people don’t know about them. Can you talk a little bit about a few actions that you think are most important for people to know about?

HH: So this is the right question, because what motivated us to write the book is to identify the places where citizen actions can make a big difference. I mean, the normal reaction to a political issue that you care about is to write a letter to your Congressperson. That turns out not to be the most effective thing to do. Civic engagement is wonderful, but if you know who makes the decision that most affects the planet, then you can make a strategy for changing that decision. 

And that’s what the book is all about. When you send in your utility bill at the end of the month, does that money land on green choices or dirty choices? Who decides whether your money goes to solar and wind or coal and natural gas? And the answer is the Public Utility Commission (PUC) of your state. How many people have stood before their state’s Public Utilities Commission and said, ‘Hey, let’s get this straight. We need to quit cooking the earth.’ How hard is that? And how complicated is it? And what happened? So we tell in this book, not only how to identify those levers of power, but stories about how people got involved and pulled those levers that made a big difference.

WP: Just how many Public Utility Commission Commissioners are there in the U.S.? 

HH: Just over 200. So roughly five per state. These people control 40% of the carbon emissions in our economy. That’s amazing. That’s a big number, and those 200 people are obligated to listen to you. They’re called Public Utilities Commission’s because they’re supposed to serve the public. They have hearings and you can stand in front of them and make your point. Now, a lot of the conversation at these meetings is a sort of a regulatory patois between utility lawyers and PUC lawyers. And that requires lots of specialized knowledge. 

But let’s say you live downwind of a big coal-fired power plant and your kid has asthma. The PUC is obligated to listen to you and your kid. You can tell them what it’s like to be a mom to have a kid who can’t breathe, and that it’s the PUC’s responsibility for that, and therefore it’s on them to change. You know, the climate change picture is pretty horrifying if you study it closely. My suggestion is people should study it enough to get concerned, but then flip to the solutions as fast as possible.

“People should study it enough to get concerned, but then flip to the solutions as fast as possible.”

Because that’s enabling. It’s energizing as well. And when you focus on solutions, your strategy becomes much more pointed than just raising awareness. It turns into how do I save this planet? How do we keep it from just burning right up?

WP: I think the problem with energy issues is that it feels complicated, and it feels like it should be left to the experts. Right? So what do I know about building codes? Or what do I know about utilities? I do feel like there are barriers around this type of engagement—how does the average person get comfortable doing this?

HH: Well, it’s good to have some logic, I would recommend a couple of days study before working to intervene in one of these decision-making venues. It’s also a great idea to look and see who else is doing this work in your region and if you can piggyback onto them. 

Every good argument has ethos, logos, and pathos. So ethos, this is your ethical standing. Every single National Academy of Sciences scientist has argued for rapid action on climate change. You don’t have to be that scientist, but it’s totally legitimate to point out that they are all saying it, there’s your ethos. Your logos, it’s now cheaper to build a solar farm from scratch than to just pay the operating costs of a coal-fired power plant. It’s amazing. Again, you don’t have to fight every detail there. And pathos – how does it make you feel when your kid has asthma or when soot is sitting on your windowsill at the end of every single day? So take those elements, put them in human terms and present them. It turns out, that’s a very hard combination to defeat.

WP: Love that. That’s very empowering. How has the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts and the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act changed the equation for you in terms of the recommendations that are in this book?

HH: We wrote the book before that all happened. So the question is, do those recommendations survive? And it turns out, they not only survive, they thrive. We argued for rapid decarbonization of the electric grid by switching from fossil fuels to renewable fuels. Well, the IRA just made that even easier because economics is now a tailwind instead of a headwind. So across the board, I think it accelerates and emphasizes the suggestions in the book. We have reached an interesting point in the energy economy of the world – it’s now cheaper, I often say, to save the world than to destroy it.

“It’s now cheaper, I often say, to save the world than to destroy it.”

WP: I think one of the things that’s frustrating is knowing that renewable energy is popular across the ideological spectrum – that most (70%) of Americans support climate action. It’s actually a more popular issue than people realize. How do you deal with the disconnect in how people see momentum at the state and federal levels? 

HH: Well, to some extent, the waters have been purposefully poisoned by people who resist change. I mean, if you look at the Koch brothers who have made close to hundreds of billions of dollars in the oil and gas business, and then you look at their political contributions, the answer becomes sort of glaringly obvious in some cases. But we also have some responsibility ourselves to think about civic action and how to overcome this. It’s often counterproductive to talk about climate change, instead of clean energy, because the numbers for clean energy are even higher than for climate change, regardless of the fact that they’re the same thing. Start with interests, bring in local examples, and identify those secret levels of power – there’s still powerful economic interests that will fight this, and we can’t win by being too precious. 

WP: I thought it was really interesting at the end of your book that you added a chapter around religion. That was a surprise to me, and I thought it was really interesting. Can you talk a little bit about why you added that and more broadly about what role you think culture needs to play in terms of speeding up this transition?

HH: You know, there’s a great moral question hanging over all of this, which is, do we have the right, as citizens of today, to leave behind burnt offerings for citizens of tomorrow?

“There’s a great moral question hanging over all of this, which is, do we have the right, as citizens of today, to leave behind burnt offerings for citizens of tomorrow?”

Do we have the right to destroy the topsoil, to alter the weather patterns to extinguish life in the oceans, to let mighty forests burn, to flood out entire towns? More than half of Pakistan was underwater this year, in terms of the population. So I don’t think we have that right. I don’t think we have the right to cheat future generations for our near-term. And I don’t think we have to. We have to make some hard choices. Avoid doing that. So from my perspective, it is an ethical question, not a religious one. I’m not a religious person. But I hope I’m an ethical person – I try to be on a good day. And that’s where the question arises, you know, what is our obligation? 

WP: And from a broader cultural perspective, what do you feel needs to happen on that front? It feels like a real shift needs to take place in terms of speeding up the rate that we need to act. 

HH: You know, we need to first of all be optimistic about the future, rather than harp on problems. A little bit of optimism goes a long way. I had a friend who said optimism is a social change strategy.

“Optimism is a social change strategy.”

And he’s right. That’s one thing we have to do – ‘pull up your socks’, as they say, in England, go get something done. 

WP: I think that’s part of the challenge, right? Like how do we make building codes, heat pumps, you know, Public Utility Commissions sexy so people think about these issues? It’s not an easy thing, but I think there’s a way to do that and starting with the solutions and the optimism and reaching people in different ways is really important. I’m glad to hear that you feel optimistic and that we’re up to the task. If there is one takeaway that you want to leave people with, what is it?

HH: There’s a lot you can do. It seems like a big intractable problem, but there are opportunities in every corner. In order to find those opportunities, you have to know something – not a lot – but something about the energy system in which decisions are the most critical, who makes those decisions, and how you can intervene in those decisions. It takes a couple of days of homework. It pays to look for groups that are similarly strategic in your region, and then jump in without fear. Right? If we have an ethical duty and great opportunity to quit poisoning our children, let’s do that. 

WP: And take advantage of this opportunity of innovation and economic gain as well.

HH: Yes, exactly. It’s all right there in front of us. 

WP: Well, thank you for taking the time. I really appreciate it. 

HH: Thank you Wendy, really delighted to have this chance to catch up.

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Meeting the Moment—What’s Next for the Clean Energy Movement

October 5, 2022

This blog comes from the desk of Wendy Philleo, the Executive Director of Generation180.

As we head into a very busy fall season, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the new clean energy landscape before us and what it means for Generation180’s work and our potential for impact. 

A year ago, the Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA) was being signed into law. That $550B action paved the way for the $54.2B in the CHIPS and Science Act (CHIPS) and the largest investment in clean energy America has ever made with the $369B Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) signed into law this summer. 

Combined, the brain (CHIPS), backbone (IIJA), and engine (IRA) will spur clean energy innovation while building out essential infrastructure to scale clean energy technologies quickly. They will also create long-term certainty for industry to keep innovating and driving down costs.

All of this is to say, these three pieces of federal legislation are a very big deal. They make the biggest investment in clean energy and climate in U.S. history, and while it took decades of advocates demanding action to get here, arguably the most challenging work is now ahead of us in implementation. Now that we have federal funding, let’s get to work and start proving how clean energy benefits all Americans. 

While it took decades of advocates demanding action to get here, arguably the most challenging work is now ahead of us in implementation.

Here’s where we see the greatest gains for solar schools, electric vehicles (including school buses), and homes.

More Schools Powered by Clean Energy

With nearly 50 million students attending over 130,000 K-12 schools, the education sector – schools in  particular – have an important role to play in our country’s transition to clean energy. Our recent Brighter Future report  found that since 2015, the amount of solar installed at K-12 schools has tripled. Despite this growth, only 9% of schools have gone solar. 

We are on the path to a brighter future, but we have a long way to go to reach our goal of 100% clean energy powered schools. More than $500 million in new federal funding will soon go to readying schools across the country for clean power solar installation and more energy efficiency. These investments benefit schools and the climate while improving indoor air quality and introducing Pre-K students to STEM. Schools ready to go solar can find out more here.

How students get to class each day also matters. There are nearly half of a million school buses on the road today, and the vast majority are dirty diesel buses. The millions of children currently riding these buses are breathing in toxic tailpipe pollution, and we have the opportunity–with more than $5 billion in federal funds for school districts–to switch to clean, zero emissions buses, charging infrastructure and operations.

Electric buses improve air quality and health outcomes, particularly for low-income communities and communities of color that disproportionately suffer the harmful effects of air pollution. Switching all of the nation’s school buses to electric would reduce the emissions equivalent to taking over 1 million cars off the road.

Electrification of Everything Becomes Easier

Which leads us to the choice that all drivers have to make their next car electric. The recent legislation has incentives that make EV ownership a no-brainer with rebates for new and used electric vehicles, $5 billion to build the nationwide network of fast chargers deployed across all 50 U.S. states, and the added benefit of supporting a renaissance of American jobs and manufacturing with EV battery plants and semiconductor factories dotting the country. 

U.S. automakers have picked up on this market demand signal and are working to deliver new EV models at unprecedented speed. With transportation being the leading source of climate-harming carbon emissions in the United States, EV adoption could come at no better time. Our national Electrify Your Ride campaign is helping to capitalize on national momentum around electric car driving by busting myths and encouraging Americans to sign the Going Electric pledge. 

Electrifying your life may begin with a major decision like owning an EV, but it doesn’t stop there. Choices we make every day–like what kind of transportation we use, how we heat the air and water in our homes, cook our food and dry our clothes–can all be electric. 

Americans in every zip code across the country can reduce their energy bills and electrify their homes through new federal tax credits and direct rebates that offset up-front costs. In addition to solar system and EV rebates, benefits for homes include credits for electric stoves, dryers, battery storage, heat pump water heaters, breaker box upgrades, home energy audits, electrical wiring, weatherization, and efficiency improvements. These seemingly small changes add up to big benefits for your wallet, climate, and personal comfort.

What You Can Do

Through this influx of new federal funding, individuals are incentivized to take action. For specific steps you can take, check out our list on how to make your energy matter. The best way for individuals to maximize their impact is to use their voice to influence change at the local, state, and national level.

The best way for individuals to maximize their impact is to use their voice to influence change at the local, state, and national level.

We need to discuss this issue at the dinner table and in our daily lives. Almost 80% of Americans support climate policies, yet a recent study shows that we underestimate popular support for climate action by nearly half. Americans need to raise their voices on this issue and show up to vote for clean energy at every election, whether it’s a local, state or national race.

While this nearly $1 trillion investment spanning the next 10 years is significant, the process of drafting and passing these bills largely left out environmental justice communities – key voices who experience frontline injury from entrenched fossil fuel interests across the U.S. These investments are only a beginning in terms of supplying critical resources to bolster community resilience to floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and other disasters made worse by climate change. 

Unprecedented Times Call for Unprecedented Communications

We are in uncharted territory with this new funding. For this earthshot to be successful, organizations, leaders, and advocates will need to double down on efforts to help schools and communities understand and utilize these new clean energy investments. 

We need a historic investment in communications and outreach to help Americans take advantage of these incentives. These incentives are useless if Americans don’t even know about them. In addition, we need to pay close attention to state implementation to ensure rapid execution and deployment of the funding in these bills and keep the pressure on at the local and state levels.

This is a moment for our country that we will never get back. We have a limited window to make the changes we need in time. Fortunately, we have the solutions and public support to fight climate change is at an all-time high. We just have to step on the accelerator.  Our collective momentum as Americans to demand a better  – a cleaner energy future for all  – is dependent on what we do in the coming years to make the clean energy balancing act finally tip in our favor.

Together, we’ve got this.

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Our Electric Future: When Will Gas Cars Go the Way of the Horse and Buggy?

September 7, 2022

When Henry Ford unveiled his history-changing Model T in 1908, there hardly was any infrastructure to support widespread transport by car. Paved roads were scarce, gas stations were few and far between, and horse-drawn carriages were the preferred way to travel.

Despite these challenges, it didn’t take long for the clearly better transportation option to go mainstream. In a little over a decade, Model T’s were everywhere, replacing the horses that had moved people for hundreds of years.

Though not a perfect comparison, the switch from the internal combustion engine to the electric one has a lot in common with the horse-to-car evolution. Many automobile prototypes preceded Henry Ford’s version. Combined with the creation of The Office of Public Roads in 1905, Ford’s unique assembly line approach unlocked the broad-based adoption earlier producers only dreamed of.

Thanks to federal and state incentives, EVs are rapidly approaching cost parity with combustion engine vehicles, and are projected to get cheaper as the cost of owning the latter rises each year depending on unpredictable global oil markets. The recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) includes provisions to accelerate the cost reductions for Americans and the nationwide charging infrastructure to support the new models.

However, we shouldn’t declare victory yet. Passenger cars are just one way people get themselves and goods around.

Electric buses and bikes, like EVs, are popping up everywhere. But that’s the low-hanging fruit—electric planes, trains, medium and heavy duty trucks, and cargo ships will be a much harder nut to crack, and spew out a significant amount of GHGs.

So, where do we stand today with the transition to electric transportation? What are the biggest barriers, and how can you play a role in hastening the movement?

To help answer these questions, let’s widen the scope and learn from other tectonic changes in technology.

Shifts in technology happen slowly, then all at once

While no one reading this remembers the horse-to-car conversion, you may remember the sudden proliferation of smartphones at the start of the century. Looking back on it now, it seems obvious—of course computers would get smaller until they fit into our pockets.

But even experts in the field had no idea what was coming. Back in 1980, Motorola expected that “car phones” would dominate the market, and projected a little over 1 million phones would be sold in the year 2000.

The actual number? 109 million.

Widespread adoption of new tech often happens faster than people think, after a long period of low growth. The kicker is usually when the new, better product reaches a competitive price level with the legacy product and consumer demand begins dictating supply. For EVs, industry experts predicted this tipping point would be reached when a vehicle hit the market that could last 200 miles on one charge and cost less than $30k.

Well, Tesla hit that mark in 2017 with its Model 3, and EV sales have been growing exponentially since then, as shown in the chart below.

Credit: EV Volumes

That’s a textbook exponential curve, and a promising sign for reducing GHG emissions from passenger cars. Although EVs represent less than 10% of global car sales, if this trend continues, they’ll make up the majority of new vehicle purchases by 2050.

This is great news, but there’s a catch.

Unfortunately, despite projections of EVs dominating new car sales very soon, gasoline cars are expected to hold onto their lead, even in 2050.

Even if you’re an environmental champion, changing vehicles takes some thought. Most people need to see cost competitiveness and enticing new benefits to make the switch from a current vehicle that works just fine.

Credit: The New York Times

Suggested remedies for this issue include more EV tax credits and government gasoline-car-buyback programs. But, with enough gas-powered cars currently in the world to stretch from Sydney to London many times over, it’ll take a while before gas cars go the way of the horse and buggy.

Armed with this historical perspective, let’s take a look at where the electric transportation transition stands today.

Range-bound

Electric cars are incredible machines. We didn’t merely come up with a way to get us around sans-combustion. We cranked the power way up in the process.

EVs have better acceleration than gas cars, mainly due to their uncomplicated engines compared to the internal combustion variety. These simplified engines also require less maintenance.

People absolutely love these things, and all signs point to mass adoption in the near term. The question is how soon that point comes.

Two key variables will affect the timeline—price and range. The comfort in knowing that you can refuel at a gas station just about anywhere in the country is important to people. As a result, “range anxiety” will persist until charging stations proliferate, ranges increase, and charge time go down.

Component shortages and other supply chain woes have kept EV prices elevated in spite of tax credits, increasing economies of scale, and other industry tailwinds. An uncertain economic future looms on the horizon, and a recession could set the market back.

As the chart above shows, gas cars will be stubborn to stamp out. For a fully electric future to become reality, gas cars probably have to phase out of the market by 2035. California recently committed to this timeline, reinforcing the world’s fifth largest economy as a leader in shaping our clean energy future.

Renewed hope for federal electrification support

Just when climate change advocates had given up hope on federal action, Joe Manchin came to the table at the last minute and emerged with a deal. The IRA may be labeled as an effort to tamp down inflation, but includes a whopping $370 billion in investments for energy security and electrification.

Labeled as “the United States’ biggest and most ambitious climate change legislation ever,” the IRA marks a renewed commitment from the U.S. to combat climate change. It’s expected to reduce U.S. GHG emissions 40% by 2030, which seemed like a pipedream just a few months ago.

Some of the highlights of the law include tax breaks for new and used EVs, language that strengthens the EPA’s regulatory authority, projected energy bill savings, and investments for new clean energy jobs. Plenty of good stuff!

This law is a game-changer, but we shouldn’t declare victory just yet. Better to think of the IRA as setting the stage for more drastic action, as public and private actors now have the financial incentive to invest in economy-wide electrification solutions.

The U.S. Postal Service made a splash this summer when it announced that half its new mail trucks would be electric. But the IRA enables it to go even further—a $3 billion allocation for more EVs and charging infrastructure sets the stage for a fully-electric mail delivery system in the near future.

Charging stations remain a thorn in the side of EV advocates, and the IRA tackles it head-on. The “Alternative Fuel Vehicle Refueling Property Credit” grants producers a 30% discount on the cost of new charging stations with cities, states, and private businesses already installing chargers.

Even the number of electric school buses, a favorite among Flip the Script readers, stands to grow. Class 6 and 7 school buses are eligible for the $1 billion in funding for new electric commercial vehicles outlined in the law.

The IRA was a historic step forward for America, but a lot of work lies ahead. So, now that the foundation is set, what are the biggest barriers still facing mass electrification?

A great start, but a long way to go

President Biden came into office promising to halve U.S. GHG emissions by 2030. While the 40% reduction estimated post-IRA is great, it falls short of that mark.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a 50% reduction is out of reach, though. Government agencies like the EPA have been empowered to pitch in. The Hill thinks the “EPA should use its expanded capacities to help the U.S. bridge that remaining 10 percent gap.”

While the EPA will look to reassert its authority with this new mandate, utilities across the country need to step up too.

Grids need to be updated to handle the increased loads caused by the EV surge. In its current iteration, the U.S. grid can’t handle massive increases in load demands. Luckily, experts are aware of what’s coming.

Pre-IRA, Biden passed a law promising $5 billion in funding for grid updates that would enable a nationwide charging network. Private and public utilities, along with EV companies, are expected to put some money on the table as well, as all have a shared interest in a well-functioning charging network.

So that’s the current state of the electric transportation transition in a nutshell. Now what can you do to support the movement?

Ways you can plug-in

Similar to the climate change fight, small actions from each of us can make a big difference over time and send the market signal that EV producers need.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Pledge to make your next car electric. Not everyone is able to run out and buy an EV tomorrow, but promising to make your next car electric when the time comes is still a huge step.
  2. Publicly support charging stations for EVs and electric school buses. If you live in a complex without any charging stations, see if you can rally support to put one in. You can ask your workplace to install a charging station, too.
  3. Talk to your local representatives about implementing a municipal electrification program. Cities like Columbus, OH have reached stunning EV adoption rates when considering infrastructure and EV purchases together.

With the tipping point for mass EV adoption right around the corner and the urgency of climate change, we have no time to waste. Let’s use the IRA as a jumping point for even more significant action to make widespread transportation electrification a reality. 

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Let’s celebrate energy independence

July 7, 2022

Every July 4th, the smell of burgers grilling, sound of firecrackers bursting, and sight of sparklers sizzling remind us of the freedom we enjoy here in America.

As we clean up from the cookout and get ready for the second half of summer, another type of liberty is on people’s minds—energy independence.

Across the country, Americans are cranking up the AC and turning on fans to contend with climate change-caused sweltering conditions. Despite falling about 1% in 2020 due to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, global energy consumption is set to grow 4% in 2022 driven by urbanization and increased access to electricity. 

To meet this demand, America still depends on foreign oil, which keeps us vulnerable to international crises and tied to dictators who don’t share our values.

We need a new framework for energy independence—an electrified economy powered by locally-produced wind and solar, freeing us from contributing to the problem we’re trying to solve.

What does ‘energy independence’ actually mean?

Energy independence has been relegated to a buzzword, with people choosing to define the phrase in ways that support their arguments. The simplest definition is when a country produces more energy than it consumes.

Even though America technically produces enough oil to meet its needs, it would be inefficient to base all of our consumption solely on domestic production. Foreign oil is often cheaper to get out of the ground, for a variety of reasons. Also, American-drilled oil tends to be light and sweet, so heavier foreign oil needs to be imported for industries that require that type. Pivoting to the growing demand for wind and solar energy would also lessen our reliance on importing heavy crude.

True energy independence in the US would mean freedom from foreign oil producers and insulation against unpredictable price shocks. The key here isn’t to produce more domestic oil to fill the gap—it’s to transition to a clean energy-based economy that would sever our reliance on foreign oil producers who don’t share our interest in creating a healthier future for everyone.

Benefits of renewables-based energy independence

Besides the obvious environmental value of being carbon-free, wind and solar energy are abundant and don’t require harmful drilling.

Anchored by these two sources, renewables can set the foundation for true energy independence in America—the kind where energy is produced where it is used and needed, not shipped from halfway across the globe.

Unlike most issues of our time, this one appeals to both sides of the aisle. The left has been a long-time advocate for the climate-friendly aspects of wind and solar, while conservative states are beginning to embrace, and even lead the way, in adopting these technologies. Texas, long associated with oil production, has by far the most clean power installations in the country – with more growth forecasted. Other agriculture-heavy, Midwestern states like Iowa and Oklahoma are building wind farms at a breakneck pace.

Residents across the Great Plains are finding that wind farms produce just as many, if not more, jobs than fossil fuel power plants. Farmers also enjoy the security that leasing turbines on their fields provides—in a bad crop year, profits from generated wind energy can offset losses. Utility companies see wind electricity costs dropping, unlike those of coal and natural gas, and are investing accordingly.

Whether or not climate change is the reason for renewable energy adoption is beside the point. In the long term, it would be good for the planet if most of society were conscious of and concerned about climate change. Today, the most important thing is that the energy transition happens and it happens fast, regardless of the rationale behind it.

Plus, many Americans are already pursuing energy independence. More than 2.7 million households are generating their own power through a rooftop solar system to meet their energy needs, many of which are using that clean energy to charge their electric cars. By pairing solar with a battery storage system, you can use the excess energy generated from the solar panels during the day stored in the battery, freeing you from relying on the grid. Many hospitals and schools already leverage solar + battery storage to enhance their resiliency during power outages or in the midst of natural disasters when the power grid goes down.

Politics play a central role in the transition

In the interest of advancing the renewable energy movement, President Biden recently invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to spur domestic manufacturing in various types of clean energy. While this legislation is by no means a catch-all, it does send the right signals to industry and funds projects that are working towards a clean energy economy.

The administration has many reasons beyond climate change to build a robust American energy sector.

First of all, safeguarding a reliable supply of oil is really expensive. The U.S. government spends an estimated $81 billion per year protecting oil supplies around the globe to ensure that American gas stations are always stocked. This astronomical sum doesn’t even include the war in Iraq, which many believe was waged at least in part due to fear of a global energy crisis.

Aside from the expense, foreign oil interests hamper countries’ ability to intervene in unjust government systems abroad due to a fear of trade retaliation. European countries recently found themselves in this precarious position. Russia supplies more than a third of Europe’s gas, leaving European Union members with a bleak choice—either ban Russian oil imports and send gas prices through the roof, or continue to buy Russian gas and indirectly fund their war effort against Ukraine.

If these countries work to meet most of their energy demand with locally-produced renewables, they can avoid similar predicaments in the future. Energy independence creates multiple political wins, including freedom from trade retaliation and built-in domestic energy security.

Let’s celebrate a new kind of independence

Nearly all Americans agree that less dependence on foreign actors for our energy needs is a good thing. The divergence comes from how that independence can be realized—some argue that more domestic fossil fuel production will get us there, but oil prices are still determined by global markets.

Long-term, sustainable energy independence should be built around local power generation, primarily from wind and solar. The closer we get to this goal, the more resilient we become as a country.

So what can you do to celebrate? Take energy independence into your own hands. Pursue your own renewable energy sources by going solar—or contact your elected officials to push them toward state and federal energy independence. We all can step up to help us achieve a clean energy future.

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The Lowdown on Clean Energy Incentives

January 26, 2022

We’ve written a lot about the financial benefits of solar, electric vehicles, and energy efficiency (spoiler alert: there are a ton of them). Speeding the transition to a clean energy future means getting these game-changing tools in the hands of as many people as possible, as fast as possible. One way to help do that is through financial incentives that make the initial purchase of these products easier. 

A plethora of tax credits, utility incentives and other rebates for electric vehicles, solar panels and energy efficiency make it easier to transition to a clean energy future. Let’s break down a sampling of federal and state incentives and how to use them.

Electric vehicles

The federal government offers a $7,500 tax credit for most new electric vehicles. Many new EVs are price below $40,000, which equates to nearly 20% off the sticker price. This dollar amount does decrease for each manufacturers as it hits certain sales thresholds, and at the time of this initial post (early 2022) some of the more well-known names like Tesla and GM no longer qualify for the credit. However, the vast majority of car makers such as Ford, Hyundai and Kia still qualify for the full $7,500 incentive.  

Almost every state offers some incentive to purchase an EV,  (check out both of these resources here and here to see what your state offers) from tax exemptions in such places as Washington state and Washington, D.C., to cash rebates in such states as California, Massachusetts and Oregon. These incentives range in value based on a person’s income and/or the size of the purchased electric vehicle’s battery. Additionally, many utility companies across the country offer cash rebates for EV owners who want to install Level 2 chargers in their homes.

So how are these credits and incentives applied when you’re at the dealership ready to buy your EV? You have to pay for the EV’s sticker price upfront — in cash or through a loan — and apply for those cash rebates after your purchase. 

At tax time, Uncle Sam would knock off $7,500 from your federal taxes due. If you don’t owe that much in taxes, the credit rolls over to the following tax year. For state tax exemptions, you either wouldn’t have to pay a sales tax at the time of purchase or you wouldn’t have to pay other types of car taxes, depending on the type of exemption your home state offers.

What about would-be EV purchasers that aren’t able to take advantage of tax credits (which give the most benefit to households that have a large tax burden)? The Biden Administration proposed big changes to this program in its Build Back Better plan — changes that would help address that inequity and encourage the widespread adoption of EVs. 

Among the proposed changes, it would make the tax credit refundable – meaning you’d get back any money left over after the IRS applies the EV credit to your tax bill. Used electric vehicles also would be eligible for the tax credit. And the credit would go up from $7,500 to $10,500 specifically for EVs made in the U.S. by union workers. 

Though the Build Back Better Act failed to pass the Senate, Democrats in Congress want to move forward with the bill’s climate portion as a standalone climate bill. So there’s still some hope the Biden Administration will revamp the federal tax credit program for EVs and make it more accessible to individuals and families who earn low to middle incomes.

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Solar panels

This year (2022) is the last year people can get a 26% federal tax credit on the cost of home solar panels. Starting in 2023, the tax credit goes down to 22%. The tax credit for solar panels works in the same way as the tax credit for EVs. You pay for solar panels upfront or finance it through a loan. When it’s time to file your taxes, this nonrefundable tax credit lowers your tax bill for the tax year when the solar panels were installed. If the credit for your solar panels is more than you owe in taxes, then the tax credit carries over to the next tax year.

Several states also offer incentives to install residential solar. Just like with EVs, these incentives vary from state to state. In Oregon, the state is offering rebates for both solar panels and battery storage. It pays the rebates to the solar contractors who then pass on the savings to the consumers. In Rhode Island, the state offers a 10% to 25% subsidy through a special grant program. In other states, utility companies or cities offer these financial incentives. 

You can search for these financial incentives by starting with your local utility company or your city’s or state’s energy department – or start with this database.

Energy efficiency

The federal government offers a range of tax credits for energy efficient home equipment and improvements. You could get up to a $500 tax credit for insulating your home or up to a $200 tax credit for replacing your drafty windows with Energy Star-certified ones. 

You can pair these federal tax credits with cash incentives or discounts offered by many nonprofits, collective groups and utility companies throughout the country. For example, National Grid, a utility company that operates in New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, offers home energy assessments and steep discounts – up to 75% – for energy efficiency improvements. The Energy Trust of Oregon, a nonprofit, offers cash rebates for a variety of energy saving solutions (e.g. new windows, insulation, heating and cooling). 

Even without subsidies, investing in electric vehicles, solar panels and energy efficiency saves money in the long run. These incentives, however, do make the transition easier, particularly because many utility companies and nonprofits have a mission to serve low- to middle-income individuals and families. These clean energy transitions not only benefit our pocketbooks, but also benefit our collective health by reducing carbon emissions and speeding the transition to a clean energy future.

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Envisioning the Clean Energy Future

January 19, 2022

With all of the amazing breakthroughs and advancements towards a clean energy future this past year, it’s exciting to imagine what our clean energy future will actually look like. As technology advances, prices continue to plummet, and more and more localities begin to see the benefits, it can help to envision what that looks like in our own lives. Visualizing the future you want with positive expectations can help you make the changes you need to in order to create it, and motivate us to achieve those expectations (instead of just fantasizing about them).

From oddity to ordinary

While the phenomenon of producing electricity from sunlight was first discovered back in 1839, most of us were introduced to solar panels by those ubiquitous solar-powered calculators of the 1990s. Baby, would you look at us now! Solar panels are inexpensive and efficient enough for a lot of Americans (4 out of 5 homes get enough sunlight to make solar viable) and it’s easy to see if they are for you.

Solar energy is one example of how clean-energy innovations, and policies to support them, can transform daily life for the better in a relatively short period of time. Solar, wind, and battery storage will account for nearly three-quarters of all new U.S. electricity added in 2022. A decade ago, that figure was less than a third—methane gas power still dominated. Same with electric vehicles (EVs), which have grown from a few thousand sold in the U.S. in 2010 to well above 300,000 annually since 2018 (more than 430,000 in 2021). Solar panels, wind farms, and EVs are now everyday sights rather than anomalies.

So the clean energy future that seemed perhaps dubious when the U.S. was in the throes of a gas and oil fracking boom is already here in many respects. What does the next chapter of clean energy look like, and how do we get there? Here are some themes to watch. 

(More) new clean energy sources

In addition to foundational renewable energy technologies like wind and solar, we also need a gamut of other clean energy sources and technologies to help power and decarbonize all sectors of our economy. 

In the future, we’ll be relying more on offshore wind turbines that can generate large amounts of energy for coastal communities. The United Kingdom, China, and Germany are leading the way so far, but the U.S. is also pushing ahead with offshore wind. The nation’s first commercial offshore wind project debuted off Rhode Island in 2016, and more are on the way, with Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York pushing ahead on new projects. Marine energy—harvesting motion from waves and currents in water—isn’t quite as far along as offshore wind, but is another active and potent area of development

To power the bigger, hard-to-decarbonize sectors like industry, trucking, and aviation, a variety of efforts are underway, but it’s too early to declare any winners. Time will tell whether these sectors mainly will run on hydrogen, massively powerful and light batteries, biofuels from waste products—or something no one has invented yet. The big key for all of these technologies will be to bring the scale up and the costs down. 

Electrifying everything

In the meantime, more of our homes, businesses, and cars will run on clean electricity. California is on track to begin requiring solar panels on new buildings in 2023; more U.S. municipalities are ditching gas as fuel for homes; and bans on new sales of gasoline-fueled cars, coupled with mandates for EV charging, continue to roll in across the globe. Expansions of community solar—one array that powers many homes or a building with many tenants—will open up clean energy access beyond those who have been able to install them at home.

Picture this: The clean-energy home of the future will have solar panels, a heat pump for climate control, all-electric appliances (including an induction cooktop instead of gas), and a fast EV charging station. Your thermostat, appliances, and chargers could be set to run when power prices are lowest. Your energy bills are likely to be a lot lower—the average U.S. household stands to save $356 a year by going electric. Beyond homes, shopping centers may offer the ability to order food to be delivered to your car while you charge up. And electric-powered drones and small aircraft could transform mobility and deliveries in cities.

Reclaiming real estate (and carbon) from fossil fuels

“The fossil fuel industry is actively battling the rise of renewables,” writes New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo. “But at most, it can only slow things down. A carbon-free energy economy is coming whether oil and coal companies like it or not.” Given that reality, part of the new clean energy economy will be based on remediating territory once dominated by fossil fuels.

Already, former coal power plants have been repurposed, such as an athletic facility and a medical marijuana farm. And inactive oil and gas sites across the U.S. amount to more than 2 million acres of restorable land, a study found last year. Companies are finding ways to repurpose carbon into products we need like fabric for clothes, cutlery for eating, furniture for your home, and even fish food.

Building up a new workforce

New tech goes hand-in-hand with new jobs, and renewables, energy efficiency, and EVs are no different. Solar, wind, and energy storage already employ more than 415,000 workers, and turbine technicians and solar installers are still two of the fastest-growing careers in the U.S., (making 130% of the median worker’s salary in America). The White House has just announced a new Clean Energy Corps dedicated to research and deployment of clean energy solutions, and has proposed policies that would create an additional 500,000-600,000 clean energy jobs.

All of these scenarios are possible because of what President Biden’s Science Advisor Eric Lander called “ferocious innovation” in a recent rundown of the administration’s research priorities to reach zero emissions.

“Sometimes in science, we get so worried about why things might fail, that we don’t devote enough imagination to how things might succeed,” Lander said. “Ferocious innovation means setting bold goals, overcoming the fear of failure, and focusing on how to succeed, even on really hard problems. We need to open the lens and try many possibilities in parallel.”

Ferocious innovation doesn’t always work like the flip of a switch, transforming the world with one breakthrough after another. It might be more like your LEDs at home, a smart thermostat, or an electric car: Modest but major improvements that build up over time and make it hard to imagine ever going back to the old way of doing things.