By Darren Springer
The U.S. election of 2016 was consequential in many ways, including for our work fighting climate change. As I think about where we are in 2017, I have been thinking back to the start of my career in 2005.
That was a time when the EPA did not recognize the dangers of climate change. Coal accounted for half of our electricity generation. The LED bulb and cold-climate heat pumps were not available, and the Chevy Volt had not debuted. Vermont had one six- megawatt wind project, and solar electricity was not yet affordable to a broad clientele.
We can be proud of what we accomplished since then, because of smart incentives, an historic clean energy stimulus package, rising fuel economy standards, new clean air pollution limits, actions by forward-looking businesses, and creative state energy policies, including Vermont’s.
Today, U.S. energy-sector carbon dioxide emissions are at their lowest levels since 1991. The burning of coal produces less than a third of our electricity. Wind energy is one of the top technologies being added to the U.S. grid. Solar provides enough power for over six million homes and has created over 200,000 American jobs.
In Vermont, we are using less electricity than a decade ago, thanks to improved efficiency. We have hundreds of megawatts of solar and wind power on the grid. We have over 17,000 clean energy jobs, and the second lowest electric rates in New England.
All of that said, I must admit back in 2005 I thought it would get easier to make progress on fighting climate change as technology improved. But in many ways, it has become harder.
Solar panels and plug-in vehicles that looked “boutique” to fossil fuel competitors in 2005 are now making real gains in market share. The fossil fuel industry has already received more federal research dollars than wind, solar, hydropower, biomass, geothermal, and all energy efficiency technologies, combined. Now it is set to receive over $100 billion in additional federal subsidies over the next ten years.
Instead of ending those subsidies and investing in clean energy, the next Congress appears focused on rolling back Clean Air Act protections and fuel efficiency standards.
There is not much hope coming from politicians generally in Washington. But I was reminded at a recent gathering of hundreds of Vermont town energy and grassroots leaders that there is still hope here in Vermont and in communities across our nation. These committed citizens represent what I think of as a network of “climate resistance” leaders, and by this I mean those opposing the polluters’ agenda in Washington D.C. The good news today is that we have more businesses joining the clean energy economy and creating new jobs in the clean energy workforce. We have the technologies we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Those technologies are getting more affordable by the day. Take the LED light bulb. The Department of Energy created the L Prize to promote investment in LED bulbs, and Philips won the prize. They created a bulb 83 percent more efficient than an incandescent of comparable output, and one with the light output equal to a typical 60-watt bulb sold for around $50 to $60 when it went on sale in 2012. This year, an even more efficient LED bulb can be found for as little as 89 cents. When we succeed through policy and innovation in driving the price for clean technologies that low, everyone who wants to save money is going to buy them.
In Vermont over the last six years, the price for solar PV electricity gear has declined by 75 percent. Similar dramatic price declines are happening with battery storage technologies. Congress can try to roll back policies, but no one can roll back economic reality.
In Vermont, we have energy efficiency programs and a Renewable Energy Standard which will keep us moving forward. By continuing to lead, and by joining communities and states which share values similar to ours, we can keep the light burning for climate progress during the potentially dark years ahead. If the federal government withdraws from its role of recent years, that does not absolve our responsibility to do our part. If anything, it means we must fight harder than ever before.
President Kennedy once said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Today, we are counting on “climate resistance” leaders here in Vermont and across this country to harness the sun, wind, and water, and our technological innovation to protect our planet from climate change, not because it is easy, but because it is hard and necessary. We must accept the challenge, we cannot postpone action, and we must win.
Darren Springer was Chief of Staff in the Office of Governor Peter Shumlin. Previously, he served as the Deputy Commissioner for the Public Service Department and worked four years for Senator Bernard Sanders, as a Senior Policy Advisor for Energy and Environment and later as Chief Counsel. He has a J.D. from Vermont Law School. Springer lives in Burlington.