Sanders is the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. What could his plan to federalize electric utilities mean for the country’s climate goals and existing power providers?
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- Feb 17, 2020 8:03 pm GMT
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Although there is plenty of time left for challengers to win the Democratic presidential nomination, early polls show Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as the front runner.
Health care seems to have taken over the conversation when it comes to debates over Sanders’ “electability” and his ambitious plans. However, his energy policy proposals are just as ambitious and his election could have far-reaching impacts on the country’s electricity generators and providers.
As part of his $16 trillion energy plan, Sanders wants to federalize a large portion of the country’s electricity generation, build out massive federally-owned renewable energy infrastructure and phase and squeeze out utilities that rely on fossil fuel for their electricity generation. His plan creates a competitive public option for local utilities to buy into, aiming to offer considerably cheaper renewable options and forcing fossil fuel-sourced energy providers out of the market.
The plan, which includes injecting trillions of dollars into a massive infrastructure build-out and transmission and battery storage, will add to and expand existing Power Marketing Administrations to supply energy to all 50 states and U.S. territories. The plan is focused on delivering a 100% renewable energy system by 2030, the most ambitious plan offered by any presidential candidate and one that calls for massive expansion of the federal government.
The idea of the government taking over privately-owned utilities made headlines last year after Californians pressed the government to take over PG&E following multiple deadly wildfires attributed to, among other things, poor infrastructure maintenance. Of course, the Sanders proposal focuses on a public takeover due to lack of aggression in meeting the needs of a country in climate crisis.
However, according to a Politico piece on Sanders’ proposal, the notion of federal government expansion into the energy industry has several issues. Among them is alienation of a huge voting bloc in battleground states, according to Josh Freed of the think tank, Third Way.
“I think a plan like this could turn off votes in large parts of the country,” Freed told Politico. “It would have challenges in Pennsylvania, Michigan—a lot of the states that are competitive for the election.”
Government expansion not only causes an issue, but also the federal government entering and potentially disrupting what has been a healthy renewable energy market.
Sanders’ plan also seeks to completely phase out nuclear energy and natural gas from the country’s portfolio, according to his campaign. Nuclear has lived a controversial life, but it has also seen a renaissance as of late, with even minds like Bill Gates lauding its potential. Sanders’ goal is to reject permit renewals for nuclear plants, as well as make the price of solar and wind power so cheap that nuclear cannot compete.
Natural gas and fracking, on the other hand, has never been popular with climate advocates; however, fracking under the Obama Administration was central to a 15% reduction in carbon emissions. Sanders, as a senator, vowed to eliminate fracking across the country by 2025.
At the center of all this are the utilities—the large corporations such as Dominion, Duke and Xcel who will have to compete with a public option aimed at squeezing them out of the market, and the more local distribution utilities that will have to make choices on where and how to purchase its energy with a competitive public option now in the mix.
Could this public option proposal work? Sanders claims it is the only option that gets the U.S. where it needs to be to avoid climate catastrophe by 2031.