August 3, 2020

Policy in the Pandemic: Stimulating Our Clean Energy Future

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

By Jennifer Weiss

As the COVID-19 pandemic persists into the summer across the United States, Americans continue to face troubling and uncertain times.

While state officials discuss what public health measures are necessary to reopen schools and businesses as safely as possible, the latest economic figures showed the U.S. economy shrank at its fastest pace on record this past spring as a result of COVID-induced shutdowns. The pandemic has no boundaries, sending a wide array of industries into a tailspin and leaving millions out of work.

People are hurting right now. Congress is debating another round of economic stimulus to provide a measure of emergency relief. But more help will likely be needed down the road for a full recovery.

Additional stimulus measures should focus on areas where new jobs can be created quickly once the public health crisis eases in order to get more Americans back to work. We have an opportunity to do that—to put people back to work—while building a sustainable future by creating jobs in clean energy infrastructure, clean transportation, and energy efficiency.

Congress could make this vision a reality through a national green bank, also known as a clean energy accelerator or clean energy fund. Green banks leverage public capital to mobilize private investment in clean energy projects. Creation of an independent, nonprofit green bank has been proposed in House and Senate bills, and the idea has earned bipartisan support in the past. As Congress considers additional stimulus measures in the wake of the pandemic, it should include creation of a national green bank to finance clean infrastructure and construction jobs across the United States.

As part of the Moving America Forward Act, the U.S. House of Representatives voted July 1 to provide $20 billion for a new nonprofit Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator to invest in clean energy and transportation infrastructure. Based on a proposed national climate bank, the accelerator would create more than 3 million jobs, according to estimates from the Coalition for Green Capital. The bill requires 20% of the funding to go to low-income and climate-impacted communities, which are also some of the most affected by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The wheels are in motion. In mid-July, former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, included the mechanism as a key piece of his $2 trillion climate plan. And a week later the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of 25 governors, called on leaders in Congress to include a national green bank in the next federal relief package. Similarly, dozens of environmental and industry trade groups, as well as state and local government officials, sent a letter to Senate leaders calling for the inclusion of the $20 billion in the next pandemic bill for a nonprofit accelerator.

Looking beyond the stimulus packages, a new report produced by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis recommended a national climate bank as a way to build our clean energy economy, a signal that it is seen as a cornerstone to future national climate policy.

What could a green bank mean for Americans? Millions of jobs to get men and women working again toward a cleaner future. Green banks are proven models for creating jobs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions while serving low-to-moderate income, rural, and vulnerable communities. While the national green bank or accelerator could finance projects that are regional or national in scope, it could also provide capital to state and local green banks better suited to finance smaller local projects.

Thousands of Americans badly need jobs right now. A green bank can help get them back to work quickly and build a sustainable future for all of us.

About the Author
Jennifer Weiss is a senior policy associate in the Climate and Energy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

NOTE: This piece was updated and adapted from a commentary written in April for Southeast Energy News by Weiss and Jeffrey Schub, executive director of the Coalition for Green Capital. Read the original commentary here.

The Big Questions

To continue the conversation on this week's topic, here are a few questions for further consideration and study:

  1. What new clean energy and energy efficiency investment opportunities are being uncovered by the recent pandemic?
  2. How can these opportunities be delivered in an equitable and accessible way?
  3. What can state and local governments do to take advantage of the investment opportunities?


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