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August 2, 2016
Paul Gipe

Renewable Energy, Climate Change and the Democratic Party Platform 2016


The Democratic Party Platform calls for a global summit to solve the climate crisis within the first 100 days of the new administration and a WWII-level mobilization to combat climate change. If that’s not enough to antagonize the Koch Brothers, there’s more. It also calls for the United States to meet 50% of its electricity consumption from clean energy sources within a decade. And therein lies the rub. Just what are the Democrats talking about?

Normally, I don’t pay much attention to party platforms in US elections. During my lifetime they’ve often been a lesson in frustration. However, my French colleague Bernard Chabot questioned the Democratic Party’s repeated use of the term “clean energy” in its platform’s passage on climate change. It’s used at least 14 times to only 4 times for the more meaningful “renewable energy.”

It’s not that Monsieur Chabot doesn’t understand English. He does and that’s why he questioned the use of the term in such a public document. He knows what the words mean--and that isn’t what most people think it is.

Clean energy is a term forged by Madison Avenue advertising mavens in the crucible of focus groups. It “polls well,” as they say. It means one thing to one interest group, something else to another. So it’s perfect for politics in America. To environmentalists, it means wind and solar energy, often only those two forms of renewable energy, and sometimes only solar. It also means good times to the coal and nuclear industry. (Ever hear of “clean coal”?) So clean energy is one of those misleading words that party leaders and, importantly, fundraisers can use to elicit money from donors of all stripes. Why say renewable energy, when you want to raise money from the coal and nuclear industries?

First, we should quickly put the platform in perspective. Party platforms have no authority. However, they can set the tone for the party, for the election campaign, and possibly even for the government to come if the party wins the election.

The Democratic Party platform says climate change is real and “poses an urgent and severe threat” to the national security interests of the United States. The other major party simply calls climate change a hoax if not a conspiracy. So in the context of this bizarre American presidential campaign, the mere fact that climate change is included in the Democratic Party’s platform is significant.

Better yet, this platform is the most aggressive I can recall relative to making an energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It not only calls for the US to meet 50% of its electricity supply from something called “clean energy,” it also says the US should do better than the Paris accords.

That climate change and some of the specific policy proposals to address climate change are included in the platform can be attributed to the assault by Bernie Sanders’ forces on the ramparts of the Democratic Party establishment. The assault was repelled, but not before some of the campaign’s ideas were incorporated into the party platform.

As an American who has to vote in this election, it’s easy to be cynical. My Canadian colleagues, on the other hand, who look at the election from across the border, suggest that this could be a defining moment in American politics. They were particularly taken by Joe Romm’s article citing the platform section on Global Climate Leadership (page 45) that calls for the “national mobilization” on the scale of that during World War II. The section specifically says the President will convene a global climate summit of engineers, scientists, policy experts, activists, and indigenous communities to chart a course to solve the “climate crisis.”

The cynics among us will quickly say, “Just what we need, another meeting, more delay.” True, that was my knee jerk reaction as well. But after I had a chance to calmly examine the idea it reminded me of my own work (how quickly we forget) in creating renewable energy policy—in Canada of all places.

The policies that can be used to tackle climate change have a track record, the science is known, the technologies needed exist, there’s broad public support for action, and there’s momentum to do something. Why then have another meeting? Because it’s a necessary part of the public policy dance.

Policymakers generally know what they want to do before they put the wheels be in motion. But a new government will have just taken power. The public will be wary, and opponents will already be sniping. (The Koch brothers and their think tank minions will be busy that’s for sure.) What the new government lacks is “buy in.” They want the semblance of seeking input, of listening. They also want the media focus that surrounds such meetings where the outcome could be a fundamental shift in how we use energy in the United States. The meeting, like that of the Democratic Party National Convention, will be highly orchestrated and while there may not be a shower of red, white, and blue balloons, there will be inspiring speeches and patriotic calls to action. Then the administration will take action that reflects what’s been discussed in private negotiations with lobbyists for the various industry groups. Nuclear will already have had its say, as will have the clean coal guys and the natural gas as a bridge fuel folks. The big wind and big solar associations will all have their favored programs in the policy drafts. There will be something for everyone—well maybe not for everyone. The Sanders’ rebels may yet be called on to assault the ramparts again to win some provisions targeted to directly benefit American citizens, such as for community wind or community solar (aka solar gardens) and not just handouts for the Democratic Party’s favored donor groups.

Significantly, there is provision in the passage on the Presidential summit that will please retired NASA scientist James Hansen. The platform says the United States will “seek to exceed” the goals set in Paris and urge other countries to do so as well. My bet is that line was added by Bill McKibben of 350.org fame, and a vocal Sander’s supporter on the platform committee. It may seem innocuous, but that one small provision alone could have more far-reaching consequences than all the other climate change provision combined.

But before I get carried away with the audacity of hope, there are other aspects of the platform which bring us back to reality.

The platform failed to include a carbon tax, not even the more palatable term “carbon levy” used in Alberta. This provision was voted down by a solid block of Clintonites. The platform’s consolation prize to Sanders’ supporters was a call for putting a price on carbon to account for market externalities. “Putting a price on carbon” is a surrogate for establishing a trading program or carbon market that’s favored by Wall Street and the banking industry.

Economists generally prefer a carbon tax—or levy if you prefer—because it’s cheaper, more direct, and easier to regulate. Wall Street, on the other hand, hungers after the transaction fees it would collect on a trading program. We’re not talking small change here. A North American carbon market could spin out huge profits to Wall Street.

Several observers have commented on the struggle within the platform committee over this and other provisions. In Disappointed By the Democratic Party Platform? Follow the Money, Branko Marcetic notes that the chief executive of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a Clinton superdelegate, opposed both the carbon tax provision and a measure to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Marcetic was writing for the web site of noted longtime journalist Bill Moyers, not some little known progressive news outlet.

For those who don’t know, CAP is the Democratic Party think tank. Its web site, thinkprogress.com, is a reliable source for the thinking inside the Democratic Party establishment. The web site is also noted for Joe Romm’s frequent articles on climate change.

In his article on the platform, Romm provides full disclosure that his boss at CAP and at least one CAP board member was on the platform committee. He doesn’t say which policies they supported and which they did not.

Few outside the cognoscenti will note the photo setting off Romm’s article, but it illustrates the state of play within the party’s establishment. The photo was of a bank-sponsored field house in Philadelphia, just across the street from where the Democratic National Convention was held. The photo no doubt was selected because it promoted clean energy in the vernacular of the Democratic Party.

What was it a photo of? A vertical wall covered with a geometric array of solar panels. And, shooting out of the top of the field house like rockets from a warship, were seven puny vertical-axis wind turbines. It doesn’t say much for the Party’s establishment wing if that’s its idea of renewable energy--excuse me--clean energy.

The use of the photo suggests the naïveté of the party’s establishment, of the media, and policymakers in the United States that this is considered avant garde—or progressive—use of renewable energy. In case it’s not clear, solar panels on a vertical wall, while architecturally attractive, are not the best way to use solar PV.

The seven small vertical-axis wind turbines are an even worse use of renewable energy. They will do little to power the field house. They may not even work reliably. All-in-all they give a false impression of what wind energy really looks like and how it can best be used. The field house could have installed a real wind turbine in the parking lot, such as you see near the Cleveland Browns stadium in Cleveland—not far from where the Republican Party presidential candidate was bashing renewables and especially wind energy—his favorite bête noire.

The solar panels and the wind turbines on the field house in Philadelphia are mere architectural adornment—building bling—and not much more. This is what the Democratic Party’s house think tank uses to depict “clean energy”. It feels good. It’s showy, but like “clean energy” it’s deceptive.

Back to the platform. The section titled “Combat Climate Change, Build a Clean Energy Economy, and Secure Environmental Justice (page 27) is a mishmash of ideas that can be boiled down to, “Let’s do something and let’s get on with it.” A sentiment justified in light of US inaction to date and a credit to the committee that it got four pages of a fifty-page document to deal with climate change.

Lest a reader of the platform become too critical of the platform’s language, it’s wise to remember that it’s very difficult to write anything by committee. And the platform committee writing this section is one very big committee with a lot of powerful interest groups looking over their shoulder. While observers who were not there may carp, that the committee accomplished anything at all is a remarkable testament to their tenacity.

As noted above, this section calls for setting a price on carbon. Of course putting a price on carbon to reflect its externalities is long overdue and this language is welcome. However, there is no direct connection between “putting a price on carbon” and accelerating a transition to a “clean energy economy.” The price will help the nation meet its climate goals but not necessarily result in more renewable energy. This is an old myth that won’t die. In part, because it’s useful to the advocates of carbon trading--Wall Street--that if we set up a large-scale carbon trading program a solar utopia—or in the preferred language of the spin meisters—clean energy utopia will arrive effortlessly without the use of the dreaded word “tax” as in carbon tax.

In addition to continuing a number of beneficial programs, the platform calls for “expanding clean energy research and development.” This is another of those innocuous and ultimately ineffectual proposals. As I’ve argued elsewhere for more three decades, we don’t need research and development. We need deployment!

We have inexpensive wind and solar energy today because of massive deployment in Germany and China. This isn’t something new. This has always been the case. Sure, R&D is nice, but it is not essential. Deployment has always been central to lowering costs and advancing the technology.

The platform calls for eliminating subsides to fossil fuels. Again, all well and good, but cutting the depletion allowance for fossil fuels or eliminating the Price-Anderson Act for nuclear is asking for one hell-of-a-fight. The effort needed to do this could be better spent on creating programs that make an American energiewende a reality. That will be a big enough fight.

In the next breath the platform calls for extending the “tax incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy.” Federal subsidies for conservation and efficiency may be warranted, though there are examples of other ways to do it. However, calling for more subsidies for “clean energy,” whatever that may be, is not warranted and is, in fact, counterproductive. Its inclusion here is a reflection of the lack of originality of senior policymakers and the public interest community that push such things.

What progressive proponents want is more renewable energy, though that’s never clearly stated in the platform. You get more renewable energy by proposing policies that get you there. Tax subsides only work the cost side of the equation. They don’t work the revenue side and they certainly don’t get you the right to connect your generation to the grid and get paid for your electricity.

For electricity generation, a serious policy proposal would work the revenue side and access to the grid. That’s not found in the platform, because it flies in the face of the desire by utilities, Wall Street, and Third Way politicians not to rock the establishment boat, potentially damaging their financial interests.

What’s more democratic than calling for the right of all American’s, rich and poor alike, to generate their own renewable electricity and to be paid a fair price for it? That’s a provision that could have been in the platform, but isn’t. It isn’t because it’s revolutionary and all the establishment interests groups on the platform committee, including many environmental groups, know that this simple, egalitarian concept is revolutionary and would certainly rock the boat.

American progressives would be shocked to compare this portion of the platform with the Liberal-Tory Manifesto in 2010 (see New Conservative British Government Agrees on More Feed-in Tariffs). Britain’s conservative manifesto was more progressive on renewable energy than the Democratic Party Platform of 2016. That the conservative British government has since backtracked doesn’t change the fact that the coalition agreement six years ago called for policies that have a record of delivering dramatic results.

The platform does not call for banning fossil fuel extraction from federal lands, but it does call for phasing “down extraction of fossil fuels” beginning with the “most polluting sources.” The latter phrase clearly targeted at coal. But there’s a lot of oil and gas on federal land and we’re not about to stop extracting it anytime soon is the message between the lines of the platform.

In the same passage, the platform says Democrats will expand renewable energy on federal land. The platform explains this as more energy from “wind in Wyoming to solar in Nevada.” While this may be an innocent literary turn of phrase, it could also reflect the neoliberal world view that we only develop wind energy where it’s windy, such as in Wyoming, and only develop solar energy where it’s sunny, as in the deserts of Nevada. This is the world view that dominates the establishment wing of the Democratic Party since the days of the Democratic Leadership Council and its noted members Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore.

The Sanders’ campaign was in part a revolt against neoliberal orthodoxy. Those aligned with this revolt reject that we only build solar plants in the desert or wind power plants in Wyoming. They argue instead, that we need solar and wind energy where people live and, thus, we need policies that make that happen.

Consider that since Margaret Thatcher Britain has been a neoliberal paradise--a laboratory for privatization and deregulation. Accordingly, there should be no solar in cloudy, wet Britain. But there it is--more than 10,000 MW of solar PV across the British Isles—nearly as much as sunny California (13,000 MW). And Britain installed all that solar within five years. California has been developing solar for three decades. Very inconvenient facts indeed.

The same is true in Germany. There would be no 40,000 MW of solar in Germany, if neoliberal policies prevailed. After all, Germany is certainly not the Saudi Arabia of solar energy. Or would Ontario, Canada—the Great White North—rival sunny Nevada as the number two spot for solar energy in North America if they’d followed such policies as only putting solar in the desert. For more on this see What Does Britain’s Solar Record Tell Us?

This brings us back to another plank in the platform, a call for half a billion solar panels within the next four years. As my colleague Chabot asked, what does this really mean? I’d also ask why solar is singled out this way and not another provision that calls for so many millions of wind turbines, or geothermal power plants. Is solar the feel good renewable of the Democratic Party?

If each panel is rated at 300 watts, half a billion panels will represent 150,000 MW of solar PV. They would be capable of generating 150 TWh of electricity per year or about 4% of US electricity consumption. That’s ambitious for the United States. We have less than 30,000 MW of solar now. Germany and China have a total of 80,000 MW in place. And China is building solar at a furious pace. With current policies China will reach 150,000 MW of solar long before we will. To reach the platform’s target we will need new policies, none of which were mentioned.

More significant, the platform also calls for the United States to provide 50% of its electricity from “clean energy” sources within a decade. That’s not possible with current policies. It’s technically doable, but it would require a mobilization not seen since the moon race or WWII. We can do it, if we choose to and implement the policies that can make it happen

With the Republican Party self-destructing, there’s a chance—small that it may be—of the Democrats carrying the House, Senate, and the White House. If that happens, some of the provisions in the platform have a chance of becoming policy. There’s a palpable sense that we could be on the cusp of historic change.

Then again, realists, such as Craig Morris at Renewables International, point out, that having a Democratic majority in the House and Senate and a Democratic President doesn’t guarantee action on climate change. During the first two years of President Obama’s eight years in office (2008-2010), the House and Senate were controlled by Democrats and there was no significant action on energy policy or climate change. Obama’s energy policy, for which he was justifiably criticized, was to call for “all of the above,” an idiom that included fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Though the Sanders’ revolution failed, it may have frightened the Democratic establishment sufficiently that they may realize they will have to do some things differently this time in office or they may fall victim to the next Sanders who comes along. Or worse, fall victim to a right wing demagogue.

The public demands action. For the first time, a political platform in the United States provides a foundation upon which to build new policies that effectively address climate change and make an energy transition a reality. The nation’s future’s at stake.


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