Tina Smith: U.S. should lead the clean energy revolution

Published 8:52 pm Thursday, September 12, 2019

Guest Column by Tina Smith

Tina Smith


In my state, you don’t have to tell our farmers about climate change — they look out at rain-soaked fields and see the changing weather patterns. The rising frequency of “intense” rainstorms in Minnesota is also overwhelming infrastructure in riverfront communities.

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Climate change is real. It is caused by humans, and it’s damaging to our health, our families and our environment. If we don’t take aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will get worse. We know this because that’s what science tells us. We need to get beyond science denial so that we can move on to the important question: What are we going to do about it?

Inaction is not acceptable. A recent report concluded that, under “business as usual” policies, climate change will likely reduce annual U.S. per capita GDP 4 percent by 2050 and more than 10 percent by 2100. In Minnesota, as is the case almost everywhere else, the brunt of the climate change burden will be borne by low-income communities.

Globally, we need to get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions during the second half of this century. Luckily, the technologies necessary to meet those goals are emerging rapidly. In many cases, particularly in the electric and transportation sectors, they are already cost-competitive or even the lowest cost option. The costs of renewable energy, batteries, carbon capture and storage, and other low-carbon technologies are dropping rapidly. Countries that choose to lead this clean revolution will gain at the expense of those who lag behind.

Our country can lead or we can follow. I, for one, want us to lead. As senator for Minnesota, I reach across the aisle at every opportunity to advance legislation supporting the clean energy revolution. Last year, I worked with a bipartisan group of colleagues to develop and fund the energy programs in the new farm bill. Wind, solar and biomass energy sources offer important ways to diversify our rural economies.

Currently, two types of climate legislation draw bipartisan support: bills that support research and development or those that provide tax incentives to companies and utilities that adopt clean energy solutions. I’m focused on both, including legislation to increase research on energy storage and wind power, and legislation to provide incentives to retrofit fossil fuel plants with carbon capture and storage technology. The idea is to provide a “push” for new innovation.

As with most topics, Washington should learn from what states are doing. One conclusion is clear: The states making the most rapid progress are re-lying on “pulls,” not just “pushes.” What does that mean? States have a long track record of encouraging innovation in the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors by setting targets that pull the market to broad deployment of low-carbon technologies. These targets provide a value signal that encourages innovation. Once these signals are sent, it’s best for government to get out of the way and let markets find the most efficient way to meet the targets — provided that guardrails are in place to make sure that no community experiences a worsening environment as the overall picture improves.

Currently, one third of Americans get their electricity from states or utilities that are already on a clear path to 80 percent to 100 percent emission reductions. In addition, a majority of states have adopted measures that drive continuous energy efficiency improvements. The latter should be a “no brainer” — the cheapest and cleanest energy is the energy that you don’t ever need to buy.

Congress should adopt solutions with a track record of both effective-ness and political viability. Following these examples, I have revived two “pull” ideas that have bipartisan history in the Senate.

My Clean Energy Standard Act of 2019 would set a national, technology-neutral target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the electric sector by mid-century. My plan is endorsed by environmental groups, utilities and unions — the broad-based support necessary for any solution to pass and be implemented. Former Department of Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz has spoken in favor of my plan. More recently, I introduced the American Energy Efficiency Act of 2019, which builds on efforts already adopted in 26 states. No Republican senators have joined either effort yet, but I continue to reach across the aisle in search of support.

For the United States to lead the world in climate and energy solutions, Congress and the President must step up. Thus far, we have failed to pass solutions that grapple with the scale and urgency of the challenge. We know what science tells us. Let’s get this done.

Tina Smith is a U.S. senator from Minnesota.