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The Energy 202: House Democrats push aid for wind and solar in new infrastructure bill


with Paulina Firozi

House Democrats are trying to throw a lifeline to wind and solar developers struck hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders included extensions of tax breaks long sought by the renewable energy sector as part of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package.

The decision to include them is a victory for environmentalists and environmentally minded Democrats in Congress, who had pressed for more aid to the clean energy sector, which has lost 620,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic.

But the move also sets up a fight with congressional Republicans, who in the past have resisted efforts to extend the renewable tax credits. It's unlikely to pass in its current form in the GOP-controlled Senate.

The legislation would give wind and solar developers more time and flexibility to take advantage of the tax incentives.

The infrastructure bill, called the Moving Forward Act, extends a tax break for onshore wind developers for five years and one for solar developers for six years. 

It would also allow those renewable energy companies to receive the credits as direct payments, rather than only being able to use them to lower their tax burden. 

That change is important, renewable energy advocates say, since solar and wind farm backers may not make enough money from other investments during the downturn for a lower tax bill to be worthwhile.

“Providing a direct payment for the credits is especially crucial as the wind industry works to withstand the enormous challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Tom Kiernan, head of the American Wind Energy Association, said in a statement.

For years, the tax breaks have helped drive the adoption of wind and solar energy, which today make up about 9 percent of the nation’s electricity mix. Both tax breaks be completely phased out by the end of 2021.

In general, the renewable energy sector applauded the bill. 

“We know that with the right policies in place,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, “clean energy can add hundreds of billions of dollars in investment and perhaps a million or more jobs back into the economy.”

Other technologies that have yet to take off in the United States, such as carbon capture and offshore wind, also would get enhanced tax credits as part of the bill.

The package includes $70 billion for updating the electric grid to accommodate more renewable energy, develop a charging network for electric vehicles and improve the energy efficiency of buildings, among other measures.

Many Democrats are clamoring for the House to do more to help renewables during the pandemic.

In a letter last week, eight leaders of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition told Pelosi and other Democratic leaders the emergency payroll loans for small businesses were not enough to save the jobs of many solar panel installers and wind turbine technicians.

“[I]t’s hard to keep workers on payroll even with federal support when the projects employees would return to are collapsing,” they wrote. 

And the Sierra Club needled Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) chairman of the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, in particular to include the wind and solar tax credits in the next coronavirus stimulus.

Until the text of the bill was released Monday, it was unclear whether the tax credits would be included.

Up next: Likely opposition from congressional Republicans.

In the past, Republicans rejected efforts to include extensions of the tax credits during negotiations for both an end-of-year spending bill and a coronavirus relief package in March. 

At one point, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Democrats of letting their concerns about climate change get in the way of coronavirus relief.

“Democrats won’t let us fund hospitals or save small businesses unless they get to dust off the Green New Deal,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Pelosi said she will bring the infrastructure bill to a vote before July 4. Even she acknowledged how difficult it would be to get the bill through the Senate, saying McConnell would kill it.

“As you know, the Grim Reaper has said nothing is ever going any place in the Senate, but there is tremendous interest in the country in rebuilding the infrastructure,” Pelosi told reporters last week.

Power plays

Nevada will adopt California’s vehicle emissions standards, the governor announced.

Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) said his state will adopt California’s car emissions rules, which would make it the 17th state to do so, the Los Angeles Times reports. Currently, 14 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the emissions standards, and Minnesota and New Mexico have announced plans to do so as well.

“Now more than ever, it is critical for Nevada to continue accelerating efforts to address climate change including capturing the many benefits of sustainable transportation options for Nevadans,” Sisolak said in a statement.

His announcement comes after the Trump administration earlier this year rolled back fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks issued under Barack Obama.

A coalition of environmental organizations is suing the Trump administration over its scale-back of protections on streams and wetlands. 

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a final rule in January to roll back an Obama-era rule expanding the waterways that fall under federal protection.

“The suit, filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Sierra Club, other environmental groups, and a number of tribes, argued the Trump administration erred in removing protections for wetlands and streams that result from rainfall,” the Hill reports. “…The suit, filed on the day the law takes effect, is the third filed by a coalition of environmental groups and follows litigation filed by 17 states. A Colorado-based suit has succeeded in temporarily blocking the rule there.” 

Coal plant closures during the Trump administration have surpassed the number that occurred during the last four years of the Obama administration. 

Trump promised during his 2016 election to bolster the coal industry, but his supporters and industry allies acknowledge that no such revival of coal has taken place, E&E News reports

“The 966,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity generated by coal plants in 2019 was the lowest amount since 1976, according to federal figures,” per the report. “Coal mines, where employment was largely stagnant over Trump's first three years, have shed 4,500 jobs since January.” 

An analysis of Energy Information Administration data found 48 gigawatts of coal retired during Obama’s tenure, with 33 gigawatts lost in the second term. By contrast, 37 gigawatts of coal have been retired during the Trump administration, and another 3.7 gigawatts is set to shutter in the next six months. 

Coronavirus fallout

The EPA is reopening its headquarters. 

The agency's Washington headquarters will open Tuesday during the coronavirus pandemic even as some have expressed concern that it’s too soon, as spikes in cases continue across the country. 

“We do expect members of EPA’s political leadership team to return to the office and those returning should follow [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines to ensure a safe work environment,” EPA spokesman James Hewitt said in an email to the Hill. 

“The EPA has said employees will retain maximum telework flexibility and will not be forced to return to the office. Employees have been asked to stay at home if they are at risk of spreading COVID-19,” the Hill reports. “But employees have argued the agency doesn’t have enough information on hand to determine if it's safe for employees to return.” 

There have been recent price gains in oil and copper as economies restart following months of lockdowns. 

Prices for these materials are bouncing back, and that could be a good sign for the economy. 

“Investors closely watch commodities because their prices fluctuate based on real-time changes to supply and demand and momentum in the global manufacturing sector,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “That means commodity prices tend to climb when factories are buzzing with activity, ships laden with goods are moving around the world and consumers are traveling.”

Wildfire season

Wildfires are still blazing in Arizona amid dry and hot conditions from the desert southwest to California. 

The fifth-largest wildfire in Arizona's history grew to 186,086 acres as of Monday morning.

“The so-called Bush Fire northeast of Phoenix had torched an area seven times larger than Disney World and 13 times larger than the island of Manhattan. It was 42 percent contained, with more than 700 personnel working to fight the flames,” Matthew Cappucci and Andrew Freedman report.

There’s no immediate end anticipated for Arizona’s dry and hot weather. 

“June into July marks the peak fire season across Arizona, with hot temperatures, low humidity and scant rainfall combining to transform any vegetation left on the ground into a powder keg to fuel wildfire growth,” they add. 

Global warming watch

A program in Chile meant to subsidize tree planting accelerated biodiversity losses and made little difference in capturing greenhouse gases. 

As part of a $408 million subsidy program, “Chile’s plantation forests more than doubled between 1986 and 2011, while native forests shrunk by 13%, according to a new report by U.S. and Chilean academics. The country subsidized tree planting while its forestry sector boomed over that period,” Bloomberg News reports. “…While forest area expanded by more than 100% between 1986 and 2011, the carbon stored in vegetation increased by just 1.98% during that period.” 

The researchers said the program provides “several cautionary lessons” about tree-planting efforts and whether they can contribute significantly to combating climate change.