Renewing our Commitment to Clean Energy

Authored By 
Becca Ellison

This week, the World Health Organization revealed that in 2012, pollution killed 7 million people worldwide. Imagine the population of Massachusetts wiped out by a single cause. If this were a disease, the federal government would have gone into overdrive to stop the epidemic. The report stated that the burning of fuels like coal, wood, and biomass account for the largest threat to human health. The United States can and should lead the way on preventing premature deaths due to pollution, pushing for better forms of renewable energy that will protect both human health and the environment.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 regulates air quality and pollution in the United States. It sets limits on the amount of pollution producers may emit and requires that facilities over the limit use the “best available control technology” to mitigate hazards. This statute applies specifically to particulate matter, and controversy currently surrounds whether or not the provisions may be extended to greenhouse gas emissions. The Clean Air Act provides the framework necessary for the US government to limit the damage of dirty fuels.

Despite the regulatory structure, huge problems persist. According to the Clean Air Task Force, in 2010 alone, coal-fired power plants caused 13,000 American deaths. They estimated the total cost of related illnesses to be $100 billion per year. These numbers are much lower than in 2004 due to increased regulation and the passage of the Clean Air Interstate Rule (an addendum to the Clean Air Act) in 2005. Clearly, though, much work remains.

And yet, Republicans (and some Democrats) from coal-producing states are currently preventing the federal government from more effectively regulating the coal industry. By framing any increased regulation as a “War on Coal,” these leaders have halted progress toward cleaning up our air and preventing unnecessary deaths. More than halting progress, Republicans are pushing for increased leeway for the coal industry. On March 24th, the US House of Representatives voted to allow coal-mining companies to resume dumping mining waste into streams. Scientific and ecological illiteracy in legislation has led to a war on environmental and human health.

Moving away from harmful fossil fuels is possible. Despite the resistance, the Obama Administration has taken steps to enhance the viability of renewable energy sources. With new regulations on coal-fired power plants, stronger fuel economy standards, and increased permits for renewable energy production on federal land, the President is bringing clean energy into the marketplace.

This is not to say an energy transition would be easy. Clean energy options like solar and wind power still face large problems of intermittency and a lack of storage options. If the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing, these sources of power are unavailable. The cost of producing such energy is also extremely high. However, examining the levelized cost of electricity reveals that the major expense of renewable energy sources like solar photovoltaics is the up-front capital investment. Therefore, as economies of scale come into play and the cost of the technology continues to drop, renewable electricity production will become competitive with fossil fuels. Cost parity will make widespread adoption of these technologies more feasible.

In the meantime, the federal government must pursue aggressive policies to support growing renewable options. Tax incentives supporting the production and investment of clean fuels are available under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. But most regulation governing net metering, utility regulation, and residential caps is left to the states. Federal and state government should commit to strengthening tax credits and guaranteeing stable backing for new projects in clean energy. Residents should be able to install renewable production capacity without worrying about a legal limit. And states should require electricity providers to have renewable sources in their energy portfolios.

The benefits of such policies would be wide-reaching. A thriving new industry could help alleviate the economic and personal pains that would accompany drawing down coal production. Renewables can also reduce our dependence on foreign oil and natural gas, a proposition that would alleviate much of the current tension between the EU and Russia. And perhaps most importantly, clean, renewable energy employed in the United States and across the world will help prevent thousands, if not millions, of premature deaths.

Becca Ellison is a junior political science major at Yale and an ISPS Director’s Fellow. She is particularly interested in environmental policy, perceptions of climate change, and the allocation of sustainable resources.

Note: All posts in Lux et Data give the view of the author, and are not necessarily the position of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies.
Area of study 
Energy & Environment