Even as the number of 2016 presidential candidates in both parties has dwindled, the media -- particularly television news -- has yet to focus on an in-depth discussion of the candidates’ policy proposals. While it was difficult to discern the energy policies that a President Trump would implement, candidate Hillary Clinton has made quite clear the energy goals that a President H.R. Clinton would set. Including her “Clean Energy Challenge,” issued last summer, and the proposal to increase energy efficiency standards that she announced in February 2016, Clinton has made very specific and far-reaching plans that would continue and expand on the Obama Administration’s policies. The focus of her energy policy is twofold – address climate change and use the clean energy industry to grow the economy and create jobs. It seems safe to say the phrase “all of the above” will not apply to the Clinton administration energy policy.
On Clinton’s website (from which all quotes in this post are taken), she describes a plan to “deliver on [Obama’s] pledge at the Paris climate conference… without … new legislation.” In other words, she will rely on executive orders and regulations to reach three benchmarks by 2027:
- Generate enough renewable energy to power every home in America, with a half a billion solar panels installed by 2020.
- Cut energy waste in American homes, schools, hospitals and offices by a third and make American manufacturing the cleanest and most efficient in the world.
- Reduce American oil consumption by a third through cleaner fuels and more efficient cars, boilers, ships and trucks.
The problem with being specific, as Clinton certainly knows, is a blogger can point out the impediments in your proposals (though this one starts by appreciating her candor and acknowledging that there are no easy answers).
Clinton promises that her plan, if implemented, would “add more power generation capacity to the grid [than] during any decade in American history,” between the additional 140 gigawatts (GW) of solar by 2020 and other forms of renewable energy. Two problems: land and infrastructure. To get to 140 GW, or 500,000 panels, not counting the additional area which would need to be cleared so the sun can get through, at a very generous rate of four acres/megawatt (MW), means the panels would take up 560,000 acres or 875 sq. miles. The loss of open space, farms and ranchland for solar (and wind) energy projects has drawn objections, and lawsuits, from environmentalists, while even rooftop solar has faced opposition. Other than calling for expanded leasing of federal lands for solar and wind energy production, which could reduce the threat of local objections, Clinton doesn’t say where all this solar will go.
An oft-repeated criticism of aggressive renewable energy targets is that the best locations for utility-scale wind and solar energy facilities are far from load centers and so will require new or enhanced transmission facilities to bring the energy to where it will be used. Further, the dispatch of large amounts of variable renewable power will stress the grid in a way not caused by the fossil fueled (and nuclear) generation it will be replacing. Construction of new transmission lines could raise land use issues, as we have often seen here in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, and will mean higher electricity rates. Clinton calls for transmission investments by the federal government, both to “improve the safety and security of existing energy infrastructure and align new infrastructure” with new renewable energy generation. At the same time, Clinton’s “Plan for Advanced Buildings,” would reduce demand through installation of energy efficiency and conservation measures and promoting demand response.
None of Clinton’s energy programs can be done without massive investments and Clinton appears ready to provide federal money through Clean Energy Challenge Grants, apprenticeship tax credits to train workers, and a national infrastructure bank. Though the Clinton campaign has pledged $60 billion for renewable energy production goals, it is not clear if this includes infrastructure spending. At the same time, it is not clear whether her promise of $30 billion in government assistance to coal communities is included in or in addition to the first $60 billion. The only thing that does make clear is that her spending proposals (on all programs, not just energy-related) will be paid through new taxes on the wealthy. That, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your politics, cannot be done without new legislation.
Often lost in the “war on coal” protests is that the most sympathetic victims of the war are not the owners of the coal plants; in regulated states, the costs of decommissioning and replacing aging coal plants will be covered in rates paid to the utilities. Even before the Clean Power Plan or the Paris accords, these utilities and generation companies in non-regulated states were making economic decisions to shut down coal plants based on the low price of natural gas and the decreased overall demand for energy. It is the people who will lose their jobs in the mines and at the plants whom the government owes assistance, especially since at the same time these people are losing paychecks, their electricity bills will be going up to cover the costs of decommissioning and new construction of both gas lines and gas plants (and, of course, renewables). It may be comforting for them that Clinton promises to “[p]rotect the health and retirement security of coalfield workers and their families and provide economic opportunities for those that kept the lights on and factories running for more than a century.”