Renewable energy backers urged Congress to make the fourth time a charm by ensuring that aid for wind, solar, and energy efficiency lacking in the first three coronavirus recovery packages makes it into the next one.
The pandemic’s deep impact on the U.S. energy sector, which has lost 1.3 million jobs in the economic downturn, was the focus of dueling hearings Tuesday in the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Energy and Natural Resources committees.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate energy panel, said he backs some “targeted investment” to help the broader energy sector—including clean energy but also fossil fuels—put people back to work and “advance our clean energy goals.”
The lost jobs in the sector were between March and April, at the height of stay-at-home orders and business closings, and essentially wiped out all U.S. energy job growth over the last five years, Manchin said. West Virginia has lost 9,400 energy jobs, two-thirds of which are in “traditional” energy sectors such as coal, he said.
Manchin said there has been one bright spot in the declining energy demand: U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are projected to drop 14% in 2020, which would be the single largest one-year drop in history.
But those planet warming emissions “will begin to bounce back as our country reopens,” he said. A Senate energy bill could help combat the expected rise in emissions by authorizing more than $24 billion for carbon capture, battery storage, and other energy technologies, Manchin said. The bill (S. 2657) stalled on the floor in March in a dispute over a single amendment to curb hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, a “super” climate pollutant used as a refrigerant.
Suffered ‘Acutely and Uniquely’
Renewable energy advocates urged the Senate and House committees to ensure that clean energy isn’t left out of the next round of economic recovery packages. Thus far, such legislation has avoid helping specific economic sectors, instead focusing more broadly on economic aid to households and small businesses, and addressing the health challenges of the coronavirus.
The clean energy sector lost more than 620,000 jobs since early March, with energy efficiency and renewable energy job losses making up more than 500,000 of those layoffs, Lisa Jacobson, president of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, told the Senate committee.
Congressional action to make wind and solar tax credits refundable—thus providing cash to companies upfront—along with extending renewable energy credits into future years could help boost the sector, she said, though she cautioned that the BCSE hasn’t formally endorsed such a platform.
The Senate panel’s chairman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), said the overall energy sector “has suffered acutely and uniquely” but focused mostly on the pandemic’s impact on the oil and gas industry, which is key to Alaska’s economy. Murkowski said the Energy Department needs to ramp up purchases of excess oil to be stored in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which would help prop up oil prices.
“We need to refill our strategic stocks when prices are low, and as prices rise, we are missing a great opportunity,” Murkowski said. “That’s not rocket science to figure out that you buy when the prices are lower.”
Pallone Urges Tax Extension
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone said any recovery package Congress crafts going forward should include an extension of renewable energy tax credits. The clean energy sector is pushing for a “safe harbor” extension to ensure that projects stalled this year and not completed by the end of 2020 can still qualify for such tax credits.
The uncertainty “has hurt the industry,” the New Jersey Democrat said during a hearing before the panel’s energy subcommittee.
Pallone acknowledged that tax credits are the jurisdiction of the Ways and Means Committee, not Energy and Commerce. A group of 179 House Democrats Monday urged House leaders to make clean energy aid a priority and extend tax credits.
The most important thing Congress can do for the clean energy industry in the immediate future is “provide temporary refundability” by essentially allowing companies to get an advance on their tax credits, and delay the scheduled phasedown of those credits, said Gregory Wetstone, president and chief executive officer of the American Council on Renewable Energy.
“When Congress shifts its focus to longer-term recovery legislation, a comprehensive alignment of the federal tax code, smart policy directives, and robust R&D investment would enable the renewable sector to expand its contribution to the nation’s economic growth and serve as an effective climate solution over the long haul,” Wetstone told the House panel.
Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath, a conservative clean-energy group, told the subcommittee that congressional solutions for helping get the energy sector back on its feet should be “ambitious but also politically and substantively pragmatic.”
“Too often, energy policy, especially clean energy or climate policy, is oversimplified to false choices,” Powell said. “Renewables versus fossils, economy versus environment, 100% reductions around the world versus inaction here at home—these false choices ultimately cloud potential solutions.”