An Energy Wish List for Congress
Amid the disarray in Washington, here is a ray of hope: It seems possible that Congress could pass energy legislation this year with the support of both parties. It would not be the sweeping measure to tackle climate change that is really needed, but there is at least a chance of getting a bill that does more good than harm for the climate and the country.
The point person on this effort will be Lisa Murkowski, the maverick Republican from Alaska who heads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She has a history of working with Democrats on energy legislation, and got 85 Senate votes for passage of a major energy bill in 2016, only to see it bog down in negotiations with a House then also led by Republicans.
Newly installed as leader of the Democrats on her committee is Joe Manchin, of West Virginia. Both senators are beholden to fossil-fuel interests, and it is inevitable that any bill they draft will seek to include provisions sought by that powerful lobby. But Ms. Murkowski has seen the effects of climate change firsthand in Alaska, and takes the problem seriously. Mr. Manchin declared the other day, “We want clean water; we want clean air; we want to have an economy that works in balance with the environment, we really do.”
In the House, newly empowered Democrats are eager to tackle climate change, but as long as Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, controls the Senate calendar, getting a sweeping climate bill through that body will be impossible. So, even as Democrats work to take control of the Senate in the 2020 election, they ought to engage with Ms. Murkowski to try to get a reasonable measure out of Congress — and to keep it focused on clean energy.
In a promising beginning, the energy committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on Thursday to examine the status and outlook for energy innovation. What, then, ought to be in this year’s energy bill? Here are some ideas that should appeal to both parties.
First, Senators Murkowski and Manchin should try to establish a firm consensus in Congress that the nation must, at minimum, double its annual spending on energy research and development. They could establish this intent in the legislation, then push as a committee for the appropriations. Business and scientific leaders, including Bill Gates, have been pleading with Congress to triple the budget for years. The sum being spent for both basic and applied research now, less than $6 billion a year in the Department of Energy budget, is paltry compared to the scope of our energy and climate problems. The United States risks falling behind China and other countries in energy technology.
In theory, Congress agreed to double the nation’s overall research budget, including energy research, in a 2007 law, then reiterated that commitment in 2010. But it never actually put up the money. The House can play a major role in ensuring that this broken promise is finally kept. At a bare minimum, it should insist that an extra $1 billion to $2 billion a year be allocated for applied clean energy research.
Second, the federal tax breaks that support installation of renewable energy technologies like wind turbines and solar panels should be extended for five years. Congress should also lift caps on federal tax credits for electric cars. Under current law, these incentives will be phased out in the next few years; they should go eventually, but not until the technologies are more widespread.
Ms. Murkowski and Mr. Manchin should specifically seek a rapid expansion of offshore wind farms. That would require tax breaks to jump-start that industry, as well as a mandate that the Trump administration accelerate offshore leasing. The technology of offshore wind production, developed largely in Europe, has improved significantly in recent years; immense turbines, planted far from shore, can each supply electricity for up to 8,000 homes. States like New York and Massachusetts are already making big plans for offshore wind, but Congress and the president could speed things up. As the market expands, costs will fall and the tax breaks can be phased out.
Third, Congress ought to make it easier to build new high-capacity power lines across the country. This sounds rather technical, we know, but it is vital. As wind turbines and solar farms become a bigger part of the electricity mix, one of the best ways to offset their intermittent nature will be to transmit power over longer distances — if the wind is not blowing in Kansas, it may well be blowing in Oklahoma or North Dakota. But state parochialism is slowing the construction of the needed power lines.
Congress actually tried to solve this problem in 2005, but the language it wrote then was ambiguous. The courts essentially gutted the relevant part of the law and gave the states a veto power over new transmission line projects. Congress needs to grant the main federal power agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, clear authority to approve a new generation of power corridors. The agency must consult with the states and the public, and respect environmental laws, of course, but if a power corridor is in the broad national interest, it ought to get built.
These new power corridors would be an investment in rural America. Wind turbines can increase farmers’ incomes while using only a small portion of their land, and that income won’t crash when commodity prices do. Across the windy middle of the country, farmers have come to see the wind as a crop they can harvest all year — and it is less work than growing corn. But a lack of transmission capacity has slowed some projects. Why not get serious about taking this product to market and allow farmers to become the core suppliers of electricity for the next several generations?
Congress should also tackle a related problem. New electronic devices that monitor the condition of long-distance power lines can help to increase their effective capacity at little cost. But utilities get paid for building new equipment, not for using old equipment more efficiently, so they are dragging their feet about installing these upgrades. The federal government ought to mandate it on interstate power lines, and set a deadline for compliance.
Senator Murkowski’s 2016 bill had a host of energy-efficiency programs that would ultimately have saved consumers tens of billions of dollars every year; these measures should be included in the new bill.
Finally, we urge Mr. Manchin and other coal-state senators to recognize that the coal industry has gone into long-term decline; coal is simply losing market share to natural gas and renewable energy. The fair thing to do is to fund a transition package for coal miners and their communities, conceptually similar to what Congress did when it passed a buyout program for tobacco farmers when a federal support policy ended.
These provisions will not fully satisfy the wish lists of either party. But they would speed the development of the nation’s clean-energy economy. Wouldn’t it be nice, amid the daily sniping in the nation’s Capitol, to show the world that America can still solve big problems?
Justin Gillis, a former environmental reporter for The Times, is a contributing opinion writer. Hal Harvey is the chief executive of the research firm Energy Innovation.
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