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Small, Steady Steps on US Clean Energy Can Realize Big Changes

A version of this piece originally appeared in The Environmental Forum, published by the Environmental Law Institute.

Communities across the United States are experiencing the impacts of climate change: rising sea levels, heat waves, forest fires, and more. For now, these impacts might seem manageable, but computer models show global warming could accelerate so rapidly that our economic and political responses won't be able to keep up. Policymakers need to keep all contingencies in mind, and plan accordingly.

Fortunately, public demands to eliminate emissions and cut pollution could emerge even earlier than catastrophic climate impacts, and just as suddenly. After Japan's Fukishima nuclear plant meltdown in 2011, political support in Germany quickly turned away from nuclear power. Smog events in London, Athens, and Los Angeles led to stricter pollution standards. Today in India's and China's booming cities, public demand for breathable air is pushing power-sector reform, including a move to renewable energy.

While we've long wondered what the tipping point might be for climate change action — Hurricane Sandy, record-breaking heatwaves and droughts, and high-tide floods have all failed so far — some event will break the camel's back and the public will eventually, and probably in the political blink of an eye, demand immediate pollution cuts.

In the United States, public support for a transition to clean energy has increased in the last five years, but climate change is still a low priority for voters; a strong preference but not yet a political demand. A new Pew Research Center survey shows that 65 percent of Americans prefer wind and solar power to address our energy supply, versus 27 percent who prefer fossil fuels. However, the new administration looks set to roll back pollution standards and expand fossil fuel development.

A wait-and-see approach, however, could land our energy system in a mess. If we delay implementing anti-pollution measures and energy development, a rapid transition will be expensive and high-risk. Premiums on capital and throughout the supply chain would spike. Skilled labor for the transition — wind turbine technicians, grid operators, solar installers, and efficiency experts — would be in short supply. The power grid would be less reliable, as the system worked to adapt quickly to a new way of operating.

Meanwhile, the electricity system would bear mounting costs from global warming impacts: demand spikes with heat waves, flood risk for coastal plants, water competition, and powerful storms. Our manufacturing sector and broader economy would pay more for less reliable power. Postponing addressing pollution makes it far more expensive, not just in societal damage from climate change, but in actual dollars and cents on rate payers' bills.

Think of it like a savings plan for retirement. Starting at 45 won't provide the savings you need in your senior years, but starting at age 25 will, and at less overall cost. In the electricity sector, incremental investments toward a long-term goal can deliver clean, affordable, reliable power.

Aging power plants, transmission lines, and other grid infrastructure mean there will be enormous turnover in the next few years. Spending on new and upgraded energy infrastructure in the next 15 years could total $25 trillion. Directing that investment to clean energy is a no-regrets strategy that doesn't necessarily cost ratepayers more than a fossil-fuel-intensive path. The National Renewable Energy Lab's analysis of a low-carbon path for California's grid found the state could halve its electric sector emissions by 2030 with minimal impact on rates. The price of wind and solar installation are dropping, with both now costing less than new natural gas in many markets.

Some of the country's largest utilities understand the need for a steady transition and are moving in the right direction. Berkshire Hathaway's utilities division has proposed doubling its investment in renewable energy, putting another $15 billion into wind and solar power. American Electric Power plans to spend $15 billion to add 8 gigawatts of wind and solar by 2034.

When utilities make steady investments in low-carbon power, ratepayers benefit from a predictable transition. Steady, incremental demand for clean energy avoids investment bubbles. Stable, long-term investments allow the clean energy supply chain and labor force to grow. Grid management evolves, maintaining reliable power for consumers.

The risk of catastrophic climate change is reason enough to act. If we wait too long and try to accomplish in three years what we should have spent 30 years doing, we will also pay an enormous and unnecessary price for renewable power. But if we push forward incrementally, power companies will see lower costs and consumers and our industrial base will enjoy reliable, affordable — and clean — energy.

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