After over a decade of Congress unsuccessfully attempting to update the federal programs that drive innovation in our energy sector, the pieces may finally be falling into place for something to pass out of Congress and into law this year. In the next two weeks, both the House and Senate could pass energy innovation bills, and the House bill, the Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act, looks to be a needed step forward to ensure future climate action will be built from a solid foundation.
While previous energy bill efforts have been more about keeping harmful things out, this House package has opened the door for better ideas on how to spur progress in clean energy innovation. This package pulls together over 60 different bills that have moved in either the Science, Energy and Commerce or Natural Resources committees and taken as a whole would significantly improve how our government approaches energy systems—putting climate action, clean jobs, and reducing environmental harms to communities at the forefront of building a path toward a new clean economy.
New Clean Economy Programs
This bill reforms and builds up grant programs in energy efficiency, clean transportation, grid modernization, and workforce development which will kick start efforts in communities to start moving faster into the clean economy. For example, this bill would update energy efficiency standards for buildings, which on its own could save consumers and businesses $51 billion on their electricity bills by 2050 while also avoiding 1.3 billion tons of carbon pollution. Proven programs like the Weatherization Assistance Program and Energy Efficiency Community Block Grant are given needed boosts in funding which get them closer to meeting strong demand, and new programs are created where needed. The bill would authorize almost $40 billion in transportation electrification grants and other clean transportation deployment and manufacturing programs to cut pollution from cars, trucks, and buses; $27 billion in programs to accelerate deployment of energy efficiency; and more than $6 billion to modernize the electricity grid. It also stands up new workforce training programs to get our workers ready for the new jobs that will be created in the clean economy.
Climate Action Now
While this is not a comprehensive climate bill, there are many sections that will reduce long term climate pollution. The phasedown in production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, which are extremely potent greenhouse pollutants, will deliver major climate benefits, for example. A global HFC phasedown is one of the biggest single steps that can be taken to slow climate change, avoiding up to a half degree Celsius of additional warming. By phasing down HFCs in this country, the House bill contributes critically to that objective.
Making Environmental Justice a Priority
While this bill focuses a lot on technology, it importantly includes a lengthy title on improving outcomes for communities that for too long have suffered from disproportionate levels of pollution, including low-income communities, communities of color, and others who have been marginalized. Under this bill, every agency of the federal government will be required to add environmental justice to its mission, and the 1994 environmental justice executive order will be incorporated into law. Additionally, environmental justice communities would be given more access to federal grant programs to support clean energy projects, but more importantly they will also receive more power to fight for their own healthy future.
Revamping Energy Research
Finally, the bill almost completely rewrites of the Department of Energy’s research and development programs. The last major overhauls of these programs were in 2005 and 2007, so updating these programs to better reflect the reality of today’s energy sector and environmental concerns is sorely needed. Science committee bills to update wind, solar, energy storage, geothermal, industrial, grid, and other programs will dramatically increase the authorized level of spending on research and development for new technologies, large demonstration projects to bring solutions like long-duration energy storage to scale, and workforce development efforts to train workers in new technologies. These sections of the bill also refocus DOE’s innovation efforts on the most important challenges to each of the technologies and sectors, including bringing down the barriers to offshore wind, improving solar manufacturing processes, developing technologies and tools to integrate large amounts of wind and solar on the grid, and broadening our toolkit for industrial decarbonization.
Some Concerning Flaws
While there is much to like about this bill, we also think there are areas where it could be improved. For instance, in tallying everything up, renewable energy falls behind nuclear and fossil energy in terms of dollars authorized. We think clean renewable energy ought to be the top priority instead. Speaking of nuclear power, we also feel that there is not enough transparency on how the federal government is planning on spending these large sums of money on the already heavily subsidized nuclear industry. We are also concerned with the large amount of funding for a new nuclear fuel called HALEU (High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium) that brings dangerously high risks of nuclear proliferation and accidents. We think it would be wiser to make sure these public dollars are being spent sensibly and that any HALEU research should have more safeguards to protect our communities and environment.
The bill also attempts to completely change the way the Office of Fossil Energy operates and this is an area in much need of reform. However, we’ve seen that best intentions are often twisted when it comes to fossil fuels so we hope this language will be strengthened to be laser focused on reducing the harms of fossil pollution that will take longer to remove from the system and not be used to prop up an industry that we know cannot coexist with a healthy environment.
Thankfully, there are some very good amendments in order that attempt to correct some of these flaws and others that would strengthen many of the programs. We look forward to supporting their passage so this already strong starting point can be further improved.
An Opportunity for This Moment
This bill is very promising but it’s obvious that it won’t provide the transformative change we need to win the fight against climate change and protect our environment. While we would love to see the House pass a transformative package and vital clean energy stimulus, three things are worth keeping in mind. First, this bill has a lot of great policies that will serve as an important down payment on future action. Second, we have already seen lots of transformative bills and actions moving their way through the House. It’s clear that big things could be on the horizon. And third, many of the provisions of this bill have a real chance to become law this year, if the Senate passes its own bill. It can be hard to feel like you are settling for practical when you need transformative, but it’s smart to understand the limits of climate action under the current Senate and the Trump administration and important to go for the wins you can get.