The media spotlight has fixed on the January 6 insurrection hearings in Congress, and rightfully so. Those responsible for that history-making event should be called to account for their actions. Nevertheless, the House and Senate still have the routine matter of the reconciliation bill to take up, which provides an opportunity to support federal clean energy policy, especially for solar power and energy storage. Their decisions will directly have an impact on hundreds of businesses, tens of thousands of working Americans, and the future of a livable climate on Earth.
They write letters
Tuesday was a day of action for the solar and energy storage industries, aimed at convincing Congress to support their workforce through the reconciliation process. Among the activities was a letter to House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, organized by the Solar Energy Industries Association and signed by more than 400 companies in the solar and energy storage industries.
“Ongoing inflation and the global energy crisis demand that lawmakers finally get these policies over the finish line to deliver critical cost-savings for families,” said SEIA President and CEO Abigail Ross Hoppe. “America has the means to become more energy and climate secure by putting people to work producing and deploying clean energy here at home, and now leaders must recognize the urgency of the moment by passing this legislation.”
Among the items supported by SEIA are: an extension of the solar investment tax credit (ITC), which has been instrumental in the growth of the U.S. solar industry; a separate credit for energy storage, recognizing that energy storage systems are assets on their own account; and, manufacturing incentives, as outlined in the Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Act introduced by Senator Jon Ossoff (D-Georgia). The bill has already passed the House and is waiting for approval in the Senate.
The letter itself was short and to the point.
“The solar, storage and other clean energy industries stand ready to help build a cleaner, cheaper, and more secure domestic energy future for all Americans. Please pass the tools in reconciliation to help us make that possible. It’s time to get this done,” the letter read in full.
What’s holding things up?
With the Democratic Party holding a majority in the House and Senate, along with the Presidency, it is fair to ask why Congress can’t do more to support the U.S. solar industry and other clean energy sectors. After all, President Joe Biden swept into office as the “climate president,” with big plans to speed up decarbonization.
The answer can be found in Civics 101. The Democrats can pass any bill they want in the House without any support from Republican members. However, they only have a razor thin majority in the Senate. In order to pass bills in the Senate, they need Republican senators to step up and support them. That’s not going to happen under the current state of affairs. Republicans hold the minority position in the Senate, but they still have enough seats to block legislation through the filibuster. The passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill last fall was the exception that proved the rule.
The Democrats do have one alternative. They can insert climate-friendly provisions in the budget, through the reconciliation process. That only requires a simple majority in the Senate, which the Democrats have. However, that will only work if all 50 Senate Democrats vote together, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote in favor.
That is do-able in some areas of policy, but not in the area of climate action. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has been holding up the works. He represents fossil energy stakeholders in his home state, a group that includes his family’s coal business.
Senator Manchin’s unique position provides him with an outsize position of power, even though he represents just a tiny sliver of the U.S. population (the current population of West Virginia is about 1.8 million).
“One person familiar with the [reconciliation] negotiations said whether the climate piece gets done will depend largely on how many concessions Manchin will insist on for the fossil fuel industry,” reported Alexander Bolton of The Hill last week.
Wiggle room for clean power and energy storage in West Virginia
Bolton cited Sam Runyon, a spokesperson for Manchin, who “waved off speculation that Schumer and Manchin are close to a deal on a broader reconciliation package that would include bold proposals to tackle global warming, a top priority of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and other Senate Democrats.”
Added Bolton, Runyon said that “suggestions that a reconciliation deal is close are false. Senator Manchin still has serious unresolved concerns and there is a lot of work to be done before it’s conceivable that a deal can be reached he can sign onto.”
One area of potential progress is in manufacturing, where Manchin may be feeling pressure from organized labor. The United Mine Workers of America is among the labor organizations recognizing that jobs in the clean energy and energy storage industries can provide rural and underserved communities with a ladder out of the economic mess left by extractive industries when they exit local communities.
“Manchin has a proposal with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to incentivize the manufacturing of new energy technologies with investments in rural communities, and some Democratic senators feel confident the West Virginia senator will agree to a package of clean energy tax breaks,” Bolton reported.
Pressure could also be coming from clean energy stakeholders in West Virginia. The state has been slow to welcome the solar and energy storage industries, but the dam is beginning to break as new opportunities for rural economic development come into view.
West Virginia is also beginning to face the basic reality of the energy transition. Other industries are seeking opportunities to decarbonize, and they will take their business elsewhere if West Virginia fails to come through with a pipeline to clean power. In particular, other states are beginning to establish green hydrogen hubs to feed the new and growing market for sustainable hydrogen.
The generational seams are showing
The 74-year-old Manchin has also provided more fodder for an emerging conversation about the outsized influence of older Americans on climate policy, and the failure of an older generation to act with the urgency demanded of the moment.
Earlier this week, Ella Nilson of CNN reported that “more than 200 congressional staffers have sent a letter to Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, demanding they close the deal on a climate and clean energy package and warning that failure could doom younger generations.”
“We’ve crafted the legislation necessary to avert climate catastrophe. It’s time for you to pass it,” the staffers wrote, adding that “The silence on expansive climate justice policy on Capitol Hill this year has been deafening. We write to distance ourselves from your dangerous inaction.”
It’s fair enough to blame Republicans in Congress for voting in lockstep with fossil energy interests. After all, they could easily help pass climate legislation, with or without the cooperation of Senator Manchin.
However, the reality of the situation is that the reconciliation process is the only window of opportunity for meaningful action on federal climate policy this year. That leaves a single Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, with the power to overcome Republican opposition to climate policy — or not, as the case may be.
Image credit: Derek Sutton via Unsplash