The Climate Movement’s New Battle Cry

100 percent renewable—we can’t settle for less.

Bill McKibben August 21, 2017

The knock on envi­ron­men­tal­ists is that they’ve been bet­ter at oppos­ing than propos­ing. Sure, being against over­heat­ing the plan­et or melt­ing the ice caps should prob­a­bly speak for itself— but it doesn’t give us a means. So it’s impor­tant news that the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment seems to be ral­ly­ing round a new flag. That stan­dard bears a num­ber: 100 percent.

No more half-measures.

It’s the call for the rapid con­ver­sion of ener­gy sys­tems around the coun­try to 100 per­cent renew­able pow­er — a call for run­ning the Unit­ed States (and the world) on sun, wind and water. What Medicare for All is to the health­care debate, or Fight for $15 is to the bat­tle against inequal­i­ty, 100% Renew­able is to the strug­gle for the planet’s future. It’s how pro­gres­sives will think about ener­gy going for­ward — and though it start­ed in north­ern Europe and North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, it’s a call that’s gain­ing trac­tion out­side the obvi­ous green enclaves. In the last few months, cities as diverse as Atlanta and Salt Lake have tak­en the pledge.

No more half-mea­sures. Barack Oba­ma drove envi­ron­men­tal­ists crazy with his all-of-the-above” ener­gy pol­i­cy, which treat­ed sun and wind as two items on a menu that includ­ed coal, gas and oil. That is not good enough. Many sci­en­tists tell us that with­in a decade, at cur­rent rates, we’ll like­ly have put enough car­bon in the atmos­phere to warm the Earth past the Paris cli­mate tar­gets. Renew­ables — even the most rapid tran­si­tion — won’t stop cli­mate change, but get­ting off fos­sil fuel now might (there are no longer any guar­an­tees) keep us from the lev­el of dam­age that would shake civilization.

In any event, we no longer need to go slow: In the last few years, engi­neers have brought the price of renew­ables so low that, accord­ing to many experts, it would make eco­nom­ic sense to switch over even if fos­sil fuels weren’t wreck­ing the Earth. That’s why the appeal of 100% Renew­able goes beyond the Left. If you pay a pow­er bill, it’s the com­mon­sense path forward. 

To under­stand why it took a while to get to this point, con­sid­er the solar pan­el. We’ve had this clever device since Bell Labs pro­duced the first mod­el in 1954. Those pan­els lost 94 per­cent of the solar ener­gy in con­ver­sion and were incred­i­bly expen­sive to pro­duce, which meant that they didn’t find many uses on plan­et Earth. In space, how­ev­er, they were essen­tial. Buzz Aldrin deployed a solar pan­el on the moon not long after Apol­lo 11 touched down.

Improve­ments in effi­cien­cy and drops in price came slow­ly for the next few decades. (Ronald Rea­gan, you may recall, took down the solar pan­els Jim­my Carter had installed atop the White House.) But in 1998, with cli­mate fears on the rise, a close elec­tion in Ger­many left the Social Democ­rats in need of an alliance with the Green Par­ty. The result­ing coali­tion gov­ern­ment began mov­ing the coun­try toward renew­able energy.

As Ger­man demand for solar pan­els and wind tur­bines grew, fac­to­ries across Chi­na learned to make the pan­els ever more cheap­ly and the price of pan­els began to plum­met, a freefall that con­tin­ues to this day. Ger­many now has days where half its pow­er is gen­er­at­ed by the sun. In 2017, solar or wind pow­er wins most com­pet­i­tive bids for elec­tric sup­ply: India just announced the clo­sure of dozens of coal mines and the can­cel­la­tion of plans for new coal-fired gen­er­at­ing sta­tions because the low cost of solar pow­er was under­cut­ting fos­sil fuel. Even in oil-rich Abu Dhabi, free pow­er from the sun is impos­si­ble to resist, and mas­sive arrays are going up amidst the oil fields.

One per­son who noticed the falling prices and improv­ing tech­nol­o­gy ear­ly on was Mark Jacob­son, direc­tor of Stan­ford University’s Atmos­phere and Ener­gy Pro­gram. In 2009, his team pub­lished a series of plans show­ing how the Unit­ed States could gen­er­ate all its ener­gy from the sun, the wind and the falling water that pro­duces hydropow­er. Two years lat­er, Jacob­son and a crew of co-con­spir­a­tors — includ­ing actor Mark Ruf­fa­lo— launched the Solu­tions Project to move the idea out of aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals and into the real world. The group has since pub­lished detailed plans for most of the planet’s coun­tries. If you want to know how many acres of south-fac­ing roof you can find in Alaba­ma or how much wind blows across Zim­bab­we, these are the folks to ask.

With each pass­ing quar­ter, the 100 per­cent tar­get is becom­ing less an aspi­ra­tional goal and more the obvi­ous solu­tion. Hell, I spent the spring in some of the poor­est parts of Africa where peo­ple — for the dai­ly price of enough kerosene to fill a sin­gle lamp — were installing solar pan­els and pow­er­ing up TVs, radios and LED bulbs. If you can do it in Ger­many and Ghana, you can do it in Grand Rapids and Gainesville.

Even 72 per­cent of Repub­li­cans want to accel­er­ate the devel­op­ment of clean ener­gy.” That explains why, for exam­ple, the Sier­ra Club is find­ing dra­mat­ic suc­cess with its #ReadyFor100 cam­paign, which lob­bies cities to com­mit to 100 per­cent renew­able. Sure, the usu­al sus­pects, such as Berke­ley, Calif., were quick to sign on. But by ear­ly sum­mer the U.S. Con­fer­ence of May­ors had endorsed the dri­ve, and lead­ers were pop­ping up in unex­pect­ed places. Colum­bia, S.C., May­or Steve Ben­jamin put it this way: It’s not mere­ly an option now; it’s imperative.”

Envi­ron­men­tal groups from the Cli­mate Mobi­liza­tion to Green­peace to Food and Water Watch are back­ing the 100 per­cent tar­get, dif­fer­ing main­ly on how quick­ly we must achieve the tran­si­tion, with answers rang­ing from one decade to around three. The right answer, giv­en the state of the plan­et, is 25 years ago. The sec­ond best: as fast as is human­ly pos­si­ble. That means, at least in part, as fast as gov­ern­ment can help make it hap­pen. The mar­ket will make the tran­si­tion nat­u­ral­ly over time (free sun­light and wind is a hard propo­si­tion to beat), but time is the one thing we haven’t got, so sub­si­dies, hard tar­gets and mon­ey to help spread the rev­o­lu­tion to the poor­est parts of the world are all crucial.

That’s why it’s so sig­nif­i­cant that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) joined with Sen. Jeff Merkley (DOre.) in April to pro­pose the first fed­er­al 100 per­cent bill. It won’t pass Con­gress this year — but as a stan­dard to shape the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty agen­da in 2018 and 2020, it’s crit­i­cal­ly important.

Con­gress, how­ev­er, is not the only leg­isla­tive body that mat­ters in Amer­i­ca. Ear­li­er this year, for instance, the Cal­i­for­nia State Sen­ate passed— by a 2 – 1 mar­gin — a bill that would take the world’s sixth-largest econ­o­my to 100 per­cent renew­able by 2045. Last month, Gov. Jer­ry Brown, in a bid to recre­ate the spir­it of the Paris cli­mate talks, invit­ed the world’s sub-nation­al” lead­ers — gov­er­nors, may­ors, region­al admin­is­tra­tors — to a San Fran­cis­co con­fer­ence in Sep­tem­ber 2018.

Look, it’s up to you and it’s up to me and tens of mil­lions of oth­er peo­ple to get it togeth­er,” Brown said, as he invit­ed the world to his gathering.

That’s not to say that this fight is going to be easy. Fos­sil fuel cor­po­ra­tions know they’re not the future, yet they’re deter­mined to keep us stuck in the past. Ener­gy Sec­re­tary Rick Per­ry, for exam­ple, recent­ly ordered a study” that, as Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tors have point­ed out, is a thin­ly dis­guised attempt to pro­mote less eco­nom­ic elec­tric gen­er­a­tion tech­nolo­gies, such as coal” by try­ing to show that inter­mit­tent sources of pow­er such as sun and wind make the grid unreliable.

That’s always been the trou­ble with renew­ables: The sun sets and the wind dies down. Indeed, one group of aca­d­e­mics chal­lenged Mark Jacobson’s cal­cu­la­tions this spring part­ly on these grounds, argu­ing that unproven tech­niques of cap­tur­ing and stor­ing car­bon from fos­sil fuel plants will like­ly be nec­es­sary, as well as con­tin­ued reliance on nuclear pow­er. Yet tech­nol­o­gy march­es on. Elon Musk’s bat­ter­ies work in Tes­la cars, but scaled up they make it eco­nom­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble for util­i­ties to store the afternoon’s sun for the evening’s elec­tric demand. In May, at an indus­try con­fab, one Cal­i­for­nia util­i­ty exec­u­tive put it this way: The tech­nol­o­gy has been resolved. How fast do you want to get to 100 per­cent? That can be done today.”

Mean­while, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is threat­en­ing to impose mas­sive tar­iffs on solar pan­els com­ing into the Unit­ed States. This could dra­mat­i­cal­ly dri­ve up the price of new U.S. solar instal­la­tions, and two-thirds of the new arrays expect­ed to come online over the next five years might nev­er be built. 

Before that hap­pens, how­ev­er, the growth in new rooftop instal­la­tions has already come to what the New York Times has called a shud­der­ing stop,” because of a con­cert­ed and well-fund­ed lob­by­ing cam­paign by tra­di­tion­al util­i­ties, which have been work­ing in state capi­tols across the coun­try to reverse incen­tives for home­own­ers.” Instead of cut­ting res­i­dents a break for help­ing solve the cli­mate cri­sis, in state after state util­i­ty cor­po­ra­tions — led by the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil (ALEC) and the Edi­son Elec­tric Insti­tute (whose polit­i­cal advo­ca­cy efforts ratepay­ers actu­al­ly under­write) — are pass­ing leg­is­la­tion that pre-empts net-meter­ing” laws, which let cus­tomers sell their excess pow­er back to the grid. Ener­gy con­sul­tant Nan­cy LaPla­ca puts it this way: Util­i­ties have a great monop­oly going and they want to keep it.”

It’s not just right-wing Repub­li­cans who oppose renew­ables. Democ­rats often sup­port new fos­sil fuel schemes, in part because they are in thrall to the build­ing trades unions for cam­paign sup­port. Last fall, days after the mer­ce­nar­ies hired by the com­pa­ny behind the Dako­ta Access Pipeline sicced Ger­man shep­herds on indige­nous pro­test­ers, the AFL-CIO (which includes the pow­er­ful North Amer­i­ca Build­ing Trades Unions) issued a state­ment sup­port­ing the pipeline as part of a com­pre­hen­sive ener­gy pol­i­cy. … Pipeline con­struc­tion and main­te­nance pro­vides qual­i­ty jobs.” Sure enough, Hillary Clin­ton refused to join Oba­ma in try­ing to block the pipeline. And, of course, Don­ald Trump approved the project ear­ly in his pres­i­den­cy, short­ly after a cheer­ful meet­ing with the heads of the build­ing trades unions. The first oil flowed through the pipeline the same after­noon that Trump pulled Amer­i­ca out of the Paris cli­mate accord.

That means, of course, that renew­ables advo­cates need to empha­size the jobs that will be cre­at­ed as we move toward sun and wind. Already, more Amer­i­cans are employed in the solar indus­try than in coal fields, and the con­ver­sion is only just begin­ning. Sanders and Merkley’s fed­er­al 100 per­cent bill, beyond its gen­er­ous cli­mate ben­e­fits, is expect­ed to pro­duce 4 mil­lion new jobs over the com­ing decades.

And since those jobs aren’t always going to be in the same places as the fos­sil fuel ones they replace, renew­able advo­cates must also demand a just tran­si­tion for dis­placed work­ers. Labor Net­work for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty (LNS) is a pro-cli­mate and pro-labor group advo­cat­ing that such work­ers get a deal like the 1944 G.I. Bill: three years of full wages and ben­e­fits, four years of edu­ca­tion and retrain­ing, and job place­ment in com­mu­ni­ty eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment pro­grams. This, by the way, is also a strong rea­son for a robust social safe­ty net— rev­o­lu­tions come with losers as well as winners.

Envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice advo­cates are also quick to point out that renters and low-income home­own­ers need to share the eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits of the renew­ables rev­o­lu­tion. In Brook­lyn, N.Y., and Fres­no, Calif., groups like UPROSE and Green for All are work­ing on local solar projects to pro­vide res­i­dents with clean ener­gy and good jobs.

Jacque­line Pat­ter­son, who heads the NAACP’s envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice work, notes that low-income com­mu­ni­ties need to be cush­ioned from any cost increas­es as the mar­ket shifts over. For those com­mu­ni­ties just tran­si­tion’ means their bills don’t fluc­tu­ate upwards.” In the best of worlds, she adds, They’re not just a con­sumer writ­ing a check every month, but they see now a chance to own part of that infrastructure.”

In June, the phil­an­thropic Wal­lace Glob­al Fund award­ed the Stand­ing Rock Sioux a $250,000 prize plus up to a $1 mil­lion invest­ment to build renew­able ener­gy infra­struc­ture on the reser­va­tion, a fit­ting com­mem­o­ra­tion to the brav­ery of water pro­tec­tors who tried to hold the Dako­ta pipeline at bay. And a reminder that pri­vate foun­da­tions will need to play a role in this tran­si­tion as well.

The polit­i­cal bat­tle for renew­ables will be hard­fought. In Jan­u­ary, the New York Times report­ed that the Koch broth­ers have begun to aggres­sive­ly (and cyn­i­cal­ly) court minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties, argu­ing that they ben­e­fit the most from cheap and abun­dant fos­sil fuels.” Their goal is not only to win black vot­ers to the GOP’s ener­gy pro­gram, but to stall renew­ables in major­i­ty-black-and-brown cities like Rich­mond, Calif.

Amer­i­ca’s twist­ed pol­i­tics may slow the tran­si­tion to renew­ables, but oth­er coun­tries are now push­ing the pace. In June, for instance, China’s Qing­hai Province — a ter­ri­to­ry the size of Texas— went a week rely­ing on 100 per­cent renew­able ener­gy, a test of grid reli­a­bil­i­ty designed to show that the coun­try could con­tin­ue its record-break­ing pace of wind and solar installation.

China’s not alone. One Fri­day in April, Great Britain, for the first time since the launch of the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion, man­aged to meet its pow­er demands with­out burn­ing one lump of coal. Since 2014, solar pro­duc­tion has grown six-fold in Chile, where Santiago’s Metro sys­tem recent­ly became the first to run most­ly on sun. Hol­land said this win­ter that its train sys­tem was now entire­ly pow­ered by the wind, and, in a mem­o­rable pub­lic­i­ty stunt, strapped its CEO to the blade of a spin­ning wind­mill to dri­ve the point home.

These are all good signs — but, set against the rapid dis­in­te­gra­tion of polar ice caps and the record glob­al tem­per­a­tures each of the last three years, they still amount to too lit­tle. It’s going to take a deep­er lev­el of com­mit­ment — includ­ing turn­ing the U.S. gov­ern­ment from an obsta­cle to an advo­cate over the next elec­tion cycles. That’s doable pre­cise­ly because the idea of renew­able ener­gy is so popular.

There are a few rea­sons why 100% Renew­able is work­ing — why it’s such a pow­er­ful idea,” says Michael Brune, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Sier­ra Club. Peo­ple have agency, for one. Peo­ple who are out­raged, alarmed, depressed, filled with despair about cli­mate change — they want to make a dif­fer­ence in ways they can see, so they’re turn­ing to their back­yards. Turn­ing to their city, their state, their uni­ver­si­ty. And, it’s excit­ing — it’s a way to address this not just through dread, but with some­thing that sparks your imagination.”

Some­times, Brune says, all envi­ron­men­tal­ists have to ral­ly togeth­er to work on the same thing, such as Key­stone XL or the Paris accord. But in this case the pol­i­tics is as dis­trib­uted as the solu­tion. It’s peo­ple work­ing on thou­sands of exam­ples of the one idea.” An idea whose time has come.

Bill McK­ibben is the author of more than ten books, includ­ing EAARTH: Mak­ing a Life on a Tough New Plan­et and Deep Econ­o­my: The Wealth of Com­mu­ni­ties and the Durable Future. He is the founder of the envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions Step It Up and 350​.org. He lives in Ver­mont with his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, and their daughter.
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