We Need to Pass the Clean Electricity Performance Program
Think of our moment this way.
You and your family are driving straight toward a cliff.
Do you lightly tap the brakes?
Or slam your foot as hard as possible?
In some ways, this is exactly the choice now facing Congress as members debate a staggeringly ambitious set of climate measures in the upcoming budget reconciliation package.
In case members of Congress missed it – or just haven’t been home to their districts in a while – their constituents have been through one hell of a summer on the climate front.
From the lethal heatwaves baking the Northwest to Western wildfires choking the country with smoke to the trail of destruction and loss Ida left from New Orleans clear to New England, nearly one-in-three Americans lived through a climate disaster in just these past three months alone.
Just to underscore the stakes here, last month, the world’s top climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released a report exploring the consequences of global warming at 1.5, 2, 3 degrees Celsius and beyond. The bottom line is that unless we get serious about cutting emissions, the summer we all just went through stops looking like a disastrous exception by mid-century and more like the good old days.
Which all comes together to give Congress a simple choice: Do we slam on the brakes now, while we still have road ahead – or gently tap the pedal and act surprised when we go sailing off the edge?
The CEPP: Hitting the Brakes on Pollution
When it comes to big moves to cut carbon pollution and help stop warming, we can get extraordinary bang-for-emissions-reduction-buck with the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) now working through Congress.
To cut to the chase, if we can only do one thing to fight climate change in what is likely our last window for bold legislation in time to make a difference, it has to be passing the CEPP.
Put simply, we are in a race against time. The IPCC is crystal clear that unless we cut global emissions in half by 2030, we can expect global warming to exceed 1.5 degrees C, opening the door to a future where the results go from bad to downright biblical.
The US, as the world’s largest economy and one of the largest polluters, has a tremendous role to play in overall emissions. Not only by virtue of our actual emissions, but also by way of the signal our demonstrated commitment to cutting those emissions sends to other economies. To put it simply, if the US (finally) gets serious, other leading economies will too.
With the clock ticking, you aim for where you can make the biggest emissions cuts fastest. In the US, that’s the power sector, which alone is responsible for 25% of total emissions, according to 2019 data from the Environmental Protection Agency.
That’s a huge slice of the overall pie, and – just to mix metaphors – the CEPP takes a huge bite, aiming to bring the overall sector to 80% renewable by 2030.
How the program does it is smart, using a combination of carrot and stick. The CEPP does this by requiring every US electricity generator to start accounting for their carbon emissions in 2023 and reduce them by 4% each year.
The government then pays generators who exceed this threshold $150 for every megawatt hour in total retail sales above that 4% baseline. Basically, the more renewables you use (and emissions you reduce), the more you can make.
On the flipside, the government charges generators who fall short of that 4% threshold $40 for every megawatt hour of sales below that number. In short, providing financial incentives for doing the right thing and penalties for polluting.
The other smart feature of this design is that it takes advantage of existing market trends making renewables cheaper and cheaper and even undercutting new coal, gas, or oil facilities in more and more parts of the world.
The CEPP Would Create Millions of Jobs
The benefits of the CEPP go beyond emissions reduction. A new report by the Analyst Group shows that the program would create 7.7 million new jobs by 2031 and add $1 trillion to the economy.
Critically, the report shows these jobs would be spread across US states and sectors, with new jobs created not just in construction, but also manufacturing and retail, providing multiple points of entry into a growing clean energy economy.
No surprise, this kind of initiative is incredibly popular with Americans all across the country. Recent polling found that the majority of voters in all US states and 429 of 435 Congressional districts support government action to achieve a 100% clean energy power sector by 2035.
That’s not just blue states. That’s red, blue, and every shade of purple in between. And that should tell Congress about what the American people – rather than lobbyists and interest groups – actually want.
Let’s Skip the Dumb Math
A quick note on the opposition to the program. Some members of Congress are suddenly getting very vocal about the cost of the CEPP, estimated in the ballpark of $150 billion.
To be clear, that is a lot of money. But let’s also remember the estimated $1 trillion in economic return the program would bring. And that as the US hasn’t invested in real climate action, we’ve experienced some 81 weather and climate disasters that together inflicted an incredible $630.2 billion in damages in just the past five years alone.
In a year when we’ve seen just one climate-fueled storm alone – Hurricane Ida – bring an estimated $95 billion in damage, not spending the program price to create millions of jobs and help avoid future catastrophe isn’t just bad policy, it’s flat out dumb.
There’s also a strong justice element here. Opposition to the CEPP price tag acts as if our current fossil fuel power sector comes with no cost. The truth is, along with changing our climate, fossil fuel pollution kills. Recent research found that pollutants from burning coal and gas contributed to 8.7 million deaths – or nearly one in five deaths – worldwide in 2018.
No surprise, these deaths and the myriad health consequences that do not quite reach mortality but still choke lungs and dreams and transform lives fall disproportionately on people of color in the US. Thanks to a world where not only power plants but also highways and other infrastructure overwhelmingly get built close to communities of color, Black and Latino Americans, for example, are exposed to 56 and 63% more fossil fuel pollutants than white Americans.
The CEPP doesn’t solve this deep injustice or the structural racism that created it overnight. But it does begin to drive a transition to a more just and equitable power sector while shifting the costs from individuals to the progressive tax code and cutting real pollution that’s killing Americans of color right here and now. And that’s a step more than worth taking.
This Is Our Moment
It’s worth repeating that passing the CEPP is the single most important thing we can do as a nation to slam on the brakes before we reach the climate cliff. Other measures – like key tax credits for clean energy and transportation and a commitment to ensuring at least 40% of climate action benefits go to disadvantaged communities – are still critical to cutting overall US emissions at least 50% by 2030. But the CEPP is the most critical step of all.
It’s also worth repeating that with an election year looming and political changes likely in the years ahead, this may be the last chance we get to pass big, bold climate measures that can transform our energy sector and economy in time to make a difference. Which is to say, this vote and this budget bill is for all the marbles.
We have a say in what happens, of course. Congress may not pass the bill on its own, with opposition from industry groups and fossil fuel advocates strong. If ever there was a time to stand up and speak up, to be brave and demand action from your leaders, this is that time.