White House Releases “Skinny” Budget: Extreme Diet for Clean Energy and Innovation

The Trump Administration released today what is known as the “skinny” budget because of the lack of specifics, and, while this is more of a political statement than a political reality, it is clear that any program remotely related to climate or clean energy is recommended for the chopping block. Climate programs like the Global Climate Change Initiative and Green Climate Fund were expected targets, but also eliminated were popular programs like Department of Energy’s flagship ARPA-e initiative; TIGER grants for transportation innovations; the Low Income Home Energy Assistance and Weatherization Assistance Programs that pay for and reduce energy bills for low-income families; and Energy Star whose labels are ubiquitous at appliance retailers. Dozens more are slated for refocus, reduction or elimination.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are saying this is “dead on arrival”, but a concern is that such a high number of programs across all sectors—not just climate and clean energy—are eliminated that it will be impossible to save them all and have the President still sign the final appropriations bills. In fact, the President has a great deal of leverage given that Congressional Republicans are eager to push to his desk both the healthcare repeal and tax reform. Congress, not the President, will pay the price for government inaction and shutdown in the 2018 mid-term elections.

So, what should we do as a community of clean energy and technology advocates and innovators? Since the agencies will be fighting against rather than on behalf of their own programs, it will be the job of Congress and all of us outside the government to stand up for our own federal government. Let’s figure out which programs have strong constituencies that Members of Congress are well-aware of and clearly support. We have to assume many of those will be restored. We find programs that industry has benefitted from and continues to engage in—and put those businesses to work being heard. The challenge will be identifying those programs that fall into the gap—that have clear benefits but not constituencies that can realistically fight for them—leaving them more vulnerable to deep cuts. Those are the programs we should be worrying about and that we will need to be more creative about supporting.

It will be critical to tell success stories, to engage everyone from grassroots to grass-tops and top brass, and to make the case that clean technology is good for the economy and for the transition into well-paying jobs in parts of the country that most need them. The private sector can’t do that alone; the federal government brain trust is crucial to enable research, development, and deployment partnerships that spur innovation and scale technology. Let’s work together to make sure the fiscal haircut does not include decapitation—that in the effort to reduce government spending we do not also diminish U.S. global leadership in clean energy.

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Clean energy policy: reducing climate change without the politics

This blog—and my career, frankly – has carefully steered clear of politically sensitive issues and focused instead on advocating for smart public policy. But having lived through summer after summer in Washington, D.C., with temperatures continuously climbing above 100 degrees and increasingly violent storms (with scientists echoing that things seem to be progressing more quickly then once thought), I finally am compelled to comment on the topic of climate change.

Given these circumstances, it seems that at long last, a real conversation about climate change is bound to happen. I actually think climate change policy does not have to be mired in politics, especially when the skepticism is concentrated in a small part of the political spectrum in Washington, D.C.

In 2010, I participated as part of a trade delegation to COP-15 in Copenhagen. I was then heading up the GridWise Alliance, and attended the climate negotiations to meet with other business leaders and observe the proceedings. I came away with two distinct impressions.

The first was that multi-national corporations clearly saw climate change as a business bonanza; that through developing solutions to mitigate climate change, they would profit.

The second was that many of the country delegations participating in the negotiations were there because the lives of their citizens were threatened by environmental destruction caused by climate change. They had travelled to dark, cold, expensive Denmark in December, in some cases bringing their own food to be able to afford the trip. These were their countries’ negotiators; top envoys and leaders desperate to have others listen to them and recognize the dire results that climate change had delivered to their homes. It seemed to me then that saving these countries from imminent danger—and creating a business case in so doing—were not mutually exclusive.

More savvy attendees managed their expectations. Hopes were high but despite efforts from the very highest levels, including the President, a grand deal did not emerge from those talks.  Back in the states, cap and trade legislation, which passed the House, failed in the Senate.  New legislation to address climate change has not been discussed seriously since, and the topic has become taboo in many political circles.

I think the pendulum is due to swing back.

We continue to hear reports that communities in Alaska that have existed for centuries are having to relocate because of reduced hunting and fishing grounds caused by climate change. Increased extreme temperatures and dramatic weather events have continued to wreak havoc in nearly every corner of the nation. Not a single person or someone they know has remained untouched. Whether these events can be directly attributed to climate change is still a point of discussion, but climate scientists are only more convinced that it is here and now.

Sooner or later, the federal debate on climate change will rekindle and, while legislation may look different from the Waxman-Markey bill of 2010, it will contain key elements that can drive a low-carbon energy future. State and local governments are already showing leadership by enacting climate policies; California is embarking on a cap and trade program, for example. Utilities are investing in technologies like smart grid and energy storage that can maximize the use of renewables and make fossil fuels more efficient. Technology development and deployment is continuing to create new wealth and jobs, despite the inaction in Congress.

And once that movement in Congress thaws, we can be in a position to help ourselves in so many ways. By devising an energy policy that asks—and strives to answer—the question “what do we want our country to look like in 50 years?” we can create incentives and groom markets for clean technologies, processes and applications that could significantly abate the threat of climate change. If we can articulate that vision and lay the policy foundation, investors will flock. Clean tech investment is still robust; private equity companies know there is money to be made. With a market that rewards reduced carbon emissions, investment—and profit—will only increase.

So, while the current rhetoric is often divisive and the hope of legislative action of any type seems bleak, we need to remain tuned in to the emerging opportunities for clean energy and innovation public policy.  Even in the unlikely scenario that the climate was to instantly stabilize, there is no risk (and potentially enormous benefits) to forging ahead on clean technologies.

FERC Order 745 and clean tech: really, this is not boring!

When the words “FERC Order” are uttered, most people’s eyes either glaze over or worried frowns appear as they wonder if they need to understand the conversation. Let’s try to figure out what this order means for the clean tech world in words we can all understand. Read more of this post