Robert Pollin is absolutely right that we must shift away from fossil fuels—the time is now. He is right, too, to note that “painful tradeoffs” are avoidable. Neither jobs nor the economy need be sacrificed in making this switch.
But Pollin is wrong to suggest that the move to a new power platform can come only from enormous government investment. Such a significant investment would help, of course, but it is not necessary. Pollin’s nearly exclusive focus on cost—on summing up the supply-side measures of greening the United States—obscures the massive potential of a demand-side solution. If the price of green energy is right, consumers will pay; cost will not matter nearly as much Pollin emphasizes. The key is to unlock consumer demand. The best way to do so is to develop better financial models—and above all, to offer low-cost financing that allows consumers to buy green energy without a large upfront payment.
Pollin neglects the demand-side: at the right price, consumers will buy green energy.
New financial models for distributed solar, for example, allow consumers to purchase just the clean electricity generated on their roofs, not the panels themselves. These models provide a framework for a wide range of rooftop solar generation projects. Consumers pay nothing upfront, and the price of their electricity is cheaper than that offered by the utility.
Pollin claims that affordable financing for clean energy projects is hard to come by because such projects are still “largely unfamiliar to investors and banks.” But state green banks—which already exist in Connecticut, New York, and Hawaii, with another close to launch in California—are paving the way for affordable financing. And as green bank financing is repaid, the private sector will find a proof of concept that it can follow. This type of financing, while new, is not riskier than the financing people use to pay for cars.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent commitment to a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 2030 further emphasizes the necessity and benefits of leveraging low-cost financing to achieve the reductions. Although not as ambitious as Pollin’s 40 percent across-the-board cut over the next twenty years, the EPA’s new rule is a substantial start. Under the policy, states will have the opportunity to devise their own plans to cut emissions, and green banks can help states generate the clean energy to comply. Moreover, as EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy adamantly stated, energy prices will not rise dramatically: “Critics claim your energy bills will skyrocket. They’re wrong. Any small, short-term change in electricity prices would be within normal fluctuations the power sector already deals with.”
Of course, there are entrenched forces that will oppose a new power platform. But there were vested interests, such as the telephone companies, that opposed efforts in the 1990s to open Internet access, too. In the end, government sided with change and new entrants. We are at another crossroads: intransigence and money cannot be allowed to delay the transition to clean energy and electric transportation.
At the end of April, U.S. Representative Chris Van Hollen introduced the Green Bank Act, which would establish a federal green bank with a capitalization of up to $50 billion. The bill should be passed right away: it is a necessary complement to the EPA’s regulations and provides low-cost capital to any state green bank to help finance clean energy technologies. The bank would serve as the first federal installment in achieving the ends Pollin describes, if not through the same means, and as soon as possible.
Economists say there is no such thing as a free lunch. But if consumers want to buy lunch at a reasonable price, serving it up is easy. In fact, recent polling shows that consumers will pay as much as $20 more per month for energy solutions that they know truly are clean. So if they can buy clean energy at a price even cheaper than dirty energy, then the new power platform will be built big and fast enough to save the global climate. That is now possible thanks to falling technology costs and low-cost financing.