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September 8, 2020
Paul Gipe

2020 Democratic Party Platform on Renewable Energy


The campaign for President of the United States is in full swing. We've endured two--mostly virtual--national party conventions. (Full disclosure: I didn't watch either.) And the parties have issued the platforms on which they will campaign.

Stop. No they haven't. One party has widely circulated its platform and that's what this commentary is about. The other party, formerly known as the Republican Party, hasn't done so and has no plans to do so. In essence they've publicly declared that whatever their dear leader wants is what they will do.

This certainly makes my task easier. There's no comparison necessary. The Democrats say something about climate change and renewable energy. The other party does not. Easy peasy.

Caveats

First, we should quickly put the Democratic Party 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.

Second, I am only going to look at certain aspects of the platform as it pertains to renewable energy and I am not gong to spend a lot of time doing it. The platform is less extensive than that in 2016. (I assume that's because the positions of the two parties are more starkly different than ever before.)

Much of my 2016 analysis, Renewable Energy, Climate Change and the Democratic Party Platform 2016 remains apropos of the 2020 platform.

Clean Energy

For example, the platform's section on combating climate change again refers to "clean energy" and not renewable energy, my term of choice. I've railed against this focus-group shopped terminology for years now--to no avail apparently.

In my analysis of the 2016 platform "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 was 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. He's fluent in English 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?"

No Time to Waste

Kudos where kudos are due. Within the first line of the climate change section the party clearly says, "We have no time to waste in taking action to protect Americans' lives and futures." About time too! But at least they said it, and clearly too without any ambiguity or pussy footing around.

I've been saying this for at least the last decade and I lifted the line from a gifted German politician, Hermann Scheer, who had been saying it for some time when I picked it up. Unfortunately, Scheer is no longer here to keep us on track. It's now up to our generation to get the job done.

My formulation is slightly different, "There's no time to lose." But the message is the same. We're in the midst of a climate emergency and its "all hands on deck."

Bring on the Renewable Energy Revolution

Of course the platform doesn't say that. What they do say is that they want to "launch a clean energy revolution." I'll cut them some rhetorical slack here. They did, after all, use the word "revolution" in a formal party document.

Not even the Germans use the term "energy revolution" in their translation of the German term Energiewende, which means the wholesale transformation of their energy system to one based on renewable resources. Germans use the word "transition." I've argued, again unsuccessfully, that a better translation of energy transition is "energy revolution" because that is what it is. We should forgive the Germans for being a little touchy on the subject of revolution. It didn't go well for them or their neighbors.

Made in USA with Union Labor

The party declares that this clean energy revolution will be used to create well paid union jobs building the technologies necessary right here in the USA. Again, such a bold and straightforward statement is welcome.

Specifically, the party says that "All jobs in the clean energy economy should provide an opportunity to join a union." As with so much in the platform this will be a tall order in the present American economy where those jobs not already outsourced to China are typically non union. Nevertheless, the effort is long overdue. (Full disclosure: I am member of the UAW. Why is a long story.)

Electric Vehicles

In several places the platform refers to "clean transportation," which I translate to mean Electric Vehicles or EVs. That's not necessarily the case. The ambiguous term could include hydrogen-fueled vehicles, a money pit if there ever was one. Despite that the party affirms California's authority to set its own standards under the Clean Air Act, the very policy that's driving EV development on the continent.

The platform calls for strengthening domestic manufacturing of EVs and in so doing delivering high-paying union jobs. The suggestion is that any participants in federal incentive programs favoring EVs will have to comply with wage requirements and at least the openness to union organizing efforts.

I am not sure what the mercurial Elon Musk thinks about this. Tesla, a non-union shop, is the largest US manufacturer of EVs. In fact, Tesla is the world's largest manufacturer of EVs period. The production from their California factory alone exceeds that from any other manufacturer by an order of magnitude. That is expected to change, but it hasn't yet. Musk is currently building his next US plant below the Mason Dixon Line where non-union shops prevail. Musk is, if anything, flexible. Who knows, he could be persuaded to take the money and allow unionizing. Then again, he could just as easily say, "Screw it" and not accept any incentives. He's doing well now without them and he likes to run his own show without interference from a pesky union.

The platform calls for 500,000 electric school buses within five years. I am not sure why that's a priority. School buses are used infrequently. Transit buses--now that's different. Converting transit buses from dirty diesel to electric is happening now, too slowly for sure, but it is underway. Converting 500,000 transit buses to electric would be a game changer. For comparison, China currently operates 400,000 electric busses! We have quite a ways to go just to catch up to China.

Democrats also call for installing 500,000 public charging stations "coast to coast." The devil is in the detail here. The traditional auto and bus manufacturers would welcome federal money to build a nationwide network of fast charging stations since they haven't lifted a finger to do it themselves. (Tesla has already done so and they're the only company that has.) What we need are fast charging stations. And we need them now. We don't need tens of thousands of Level 2 or low-power stations used to charge cars overnight. We're beyond that stage except for apartment dwellers.

Renewables

The platform calls for eliminating carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035 through "technology-neutral standards" for "clean energy" and energy efficiency. Oh boy. You can bet it wasn't the Sander's people who stuck in those neoliberal code words. "Technology neutral" has been a conservative talking point in energy policy for the past four decades and it's what got us into this mess in the first place. Lest this become a treatise on the flaws of neoliberalism, let's move on.

The platform calls specifically for

500 Million Solar Panels

What does that mean? Making some generous assumptions, this would add 150,000 MW of solar PV to the nation's stock--or twice that installed today. Doubling solar PV capacity is good. It's ambitious. But solar is not the workhorse so many want it to be--at least not yet. Solar PV today provides about 2% of the nation's electricity consumption. Doubling that will add 4% for a total of 6%. Good, but not anywhere near good enough to eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035.

8 Million Solar Roofs

Unfortunately, this is not a separate item but included in the above target. Again, making some gross assumptions this proposal would add 40,000 MW of rooftop solar capable of meeting 1% of our consumption. Translating, 25% of the solar program would be for residential use, 75% would be earmarked for commercial solar. At least they set aside some capacity for local ownership and didn't give everything to the commercial sector.

60,000 Wind Turbines

Now this is where the platform gets serious or as serious as a political platform can get. 60,000 of today's large diameter wind turbines can deliver upwards of 550 TWh per year of electricity from nearly 200,000 MW of installed capacity or double that installed today. That's enough generation to provide 14% of the nation's electricity. Coupled with current generation of 7%, the party's proposal would bring the total contribution of wind energy to one-fifth of US consumption. Wind is the workhorse of any renewable energy proposal as it is here. Good on the Democrats for publicly acknowledging this.

All told, the solar and wind proposals--in addition to what we already have--will bring the nation to less than one-third of its electricity consumption with non-hydro renewables in five years. Clearly better than where we are, but also clearly not nearly enough.

We'll need a lot more solar and a lot more wind if we are ever to meet the party's goal of eliminating carbon emissions by 2035. It can be done, but not with current policies even including those in the party platform.

Inclusive of Other "Zero-Carbon" Technologies

Wisely, the platform includes other renewable technologies, such as geothermal and hydro, but without any specific proposals.

Sops to Nuclear & Carbon Capture

Then the platform goes off the rails no doubt due to the Democrats reliance on corporate donors from the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. This section certainly did not come from the Sanders side of the party.

The platform includes existing and "advanced" nuclear and "carbon capture and storage" among "zero-carbon technologies" that the party will support. What that support may be isn't defined. Considering that existing nuclear plants are uncompetitive in a de-regulated market they will need to be propped up with outright subsidies or through some form of nuclear feed-in tariff. The free-market neoliberals in the party will have to tie themselves in knots to justify that. It is the same with the nonexistent "advanced" nuclear plants. Who will pay and how they will do so will occupy economists for years. That's assuming they could even get something built within the next decade.

Similarly, the platform throws a bone to fossil fuels by including carbon capture and storage. Again, this technology doesn't exist commercially and where it does exist it's been used primarily to produce more oil. This is the exact opposite of what we want--to keep oil in the ground. We don't want to burn more of it.

Elsewhere the platform talks about throwing money at research, including on so-called "advanced" nuclear, carbon capture and storage, and so on. Blah, blah, blah.

In the past this focus on "research and development" would infuriate me, but no longer. We can safely ignore these provisions as long as we keep an eye that they don't get in the way of the renewable energy revolution already underway. It's what the Democrats do. It's what their corporate sponsors want. As long as the money spent on these program does no harm, doesn't throw up "too good to be true" inventions or is used to delay the progress we need now from the technology we have now, I don't have a problem with it.

Fossil Fuel & Nuclear Accountability

The platform responsibly calls for protecting and shoring up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund for those coal miners who have in part paid for our prosperity with their health.

Similarly, the Democrats call for expanding the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to include miners and workers otherwise affected by exposure on the job.

And they say they will hold fossil fuel companies accountable for cleaning up their abandoned mines, their abandoned oil and gas wells, and their derelict processing plants. Again, this is long overdue but at least it has made it into the party's manifesto. Of course I'll believe it when I see it.

Conservation Corps

The party calls for creation of a new conservation corps to install renewable energy systems and preserve our public lands. They also call on boosting the skilled trades through expanded apprenticeship programs. These are both laudable programs that provide a career path for many unemployed and underemployed.

Conclusion

There's much to like in the party's platform. If elected and the Democrats implement a fraction of their proposals, they will liberate us from the current nightmare, and go a long way to reversing the country's four-decade decline while once again providing hope and opportunity for Americans. In doing so, they will also begin to address the existential crisis facing all of us--climate change.

Is the platform what I want or what I'd do? No. But it's light years from where we are now and where we're headed if the Democrats fail.


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