Podcast #94: The Future of Renewable Energy Policy with J. Drake Hamilton

j-drake-pic-2This week’s podcast is a conversation with J. Drake Hamilton, a Science Policy Director for Fresh Energy, a Minnesota-based non-profit that works at the intersection of energy and environmental policy. J. and I sat down to talk about what the climate change conversation might look like over the next few years, in a political landscape that has markedly changed. I was hoping to understand the potential policies of a Trump administration, and Hamilton did her best to help me understand the relationship between regulation, legal issues, and market and economic forces around climate change. WE chatted about the Clean Power Plan, Minnesota’s leadership on renewable energy in the Midwest, and what the best case scenario under President Trump might look like. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

[Partial rough transcript follows.]

About her work with Fresh Energy:

I work on policies that will improve economic opportunities in clean energy businesses. I’ve been doing this work with Fresh Energy for 20 years. I’m happy to be based in Minnesota because the heartland states are the places where we have burned a lot of coal, where we have hot summers and cold winters. But much faster than people thought it would happen, the market costs of clean energy have come down enough that if you’re deciding about new fossil fuels versus new wind or solar, very often that new wind or sometimes new solar out-competes fossil fuels just based on cost. That’s why people are saying that we’re already in a renewable energy revolution, because prices have come down so fast. The question is how do we make sure that renewable energy revolution provides opportunities for everybody in the economy. And how do we make sure it moves as fast as possible because climate science dictates that we need to move very rapidly.

On Climate Change:

There’s been an upward ticking trend in the thermometer since about 1975 around the globe, and 2015 was significantly warmer than 2014. And 2016 will be again very significantly warmer than that. The folks who study climate in many different disciplines, and look at the evidence on the earth’s surface, are frankly alarmed at what they’re seeing, at the speed at which this is happening. This one is largely being driven by human activity, by burning fossil fuels and cutting tropical forest, and releasing the carbon in those trees.


On the Trump team’s statements on climate change

It’s very disturbing. The reason I as an academic climatologist joined Fresh Energy 20 years ago is because they’re the leading nonprofit in this country working on science-based data-driven policies to address global warming. I want to know that the policies we’re advocating for make sense and will make a difference. A literate nation, an advanced nation, the richest nation on earth, should continue to use science to make decisions going forward.

But the backstop here is interesting and it’s the factor that got us across the finish line at the Paris climate negotiations. And that is that the business leaders from many countries, from many sectors of the economy, announcing that they were going in their own countries after 100% renewable energy. There are now 87 major corporations that have this goal, and came to Paris wanting to seize the opportunities to form a clean energy market that will come when the world has agreed that we’re going to limit carbon, as we now have, across the economies of the globe.

On the renewable energy market:

Take LED lightbulbs… the cost of those since 2009 has come down in the US 94%, so that has made it, it’s now the industry standard when you’re building a new home or new construction. Energy efficiency as exemplified by LED lights has come down, with a 94% reduction in costs since 2009. And an 84% cost reduction for solar since 2009, and a 64% reduction in wind since 2009

In Minnesota, we have decoupled our energy economy from carbon. We’re able to grow our economy, and our economy has continued to grow faster than the national average, while we have so far cut carbon by about 20% in the electricity sector.

On the future of Obama’s Clean Power Plan:

Heres a snapshot of that. Many people in both parties tried through Congress to pass a requirement to cut carbon from coal plants. The reason we are hyper-focused on coal is that it is by far the largest source of global warming pollution in this state and in this country. But those efforts were killed by Republicans in the Senate. The “Plan B” was to use a law that a previous congress passed in 1970, the Clean Air Act. It says that if the EPA can show that a pollutant is damaging human health and welfare, that the EPA must set a limit and lower the amount of that pollution over time.

In 2007 a number of entities, including states and cities, sued the EPA and they said that CO2 and other Greenhouse Gases are harming the planet and need to be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The Supreme Court ruled that if the EPA could show harm for human health and welfare, they could limit the amount of CO2 released from burning coal. So in 2015, the Obama administration used the Clean Air Act and put into law the Clean Power Plan (CPP). And the CPP is the biggest thing that any nation has ever done to fight global warming because it would cut the carbon coming out of coal plants by 33% by 2013.

Minnesota and most other states are already on track to meet their CPP goals and cut carbon pollution. And every state, including Republican states, a majority of the electorate favors continuing with the CPP. While it is the case that a new administration could roll back that standard, it would take a number of years to do that because they would have to go through rule-making process. Or they could just ignore that standard going forward. But the reality is that the market is driving these decisions to move toward cleaner energy. It’s the market forces, because the prices of the substitutes for coal have come down so rapidly, that will continue to drive this renewable energy revolution. It would be a big mistake to move away from the CPP, but what people should know is that we are in a renewable energy revolution that is not being driven by regulation, but is being driven by market forces.

On Minnesota’s role in reducing carbon emissions:

When you look at who’s burning a lot of coal, it’s states like Missouri, or a lot of these midwestern states. That’s why Minnesota is so significant. We’ve been led by states like Massachusetts and California, but those are places that never burned very much coal in the first place. In the case of California and Washington, they’ve had the benefit of federal hydro power.

But we’re in the industrial heartland of the US. We have hot summers and cold winters. We have to travel great distances. We have agriculture to power. We have industries like taconite to power. We need to figure this out, and figure out how to keep these high-energy-using industries producing in the heartland, but producing using much less carbon going forward. And this decoupling I’m talking about has started to move forward in places like Minnesota.

On the forthcoming Trump years:

We’ll see what president-elect Trump decides to do going forward. His statements about science, especially climate science, are wrong. They’re just wrong, and I hope he’ll have advisors in place and listen to those advisors, and listen to the companies, both the scientists and the economic interests, that are represented by companies that are saying that climate change is a risk to businesses, a risk to our economic environment, and to our livelihoods and our quality of life. Fortunately we have many of the solutions at hand, and solutions that will provide good paying jobs that will make a difference and be around for decades and decades to come.


Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.