Have you heard about the clean energy triangle?
The theory goes that in order to rapidly deploy clean energy, you need three elements: technology; policy; and finance. When these components are integrated, we’re able to thoughtfully accelerate the speed and scale of clean technologies. The technology is there and is getting better. The finance is following as investors see there’s money to be made. The only missing piece, before this week, has been policy.
The inauguration of Joe Biden as president is the dawn of a new political era; for the first time, the stars are aligning for the clean energy sector to unleash its full potential.
Biden’s position on clean energy is as diametrically opposed to his predecessor as this analyst can fathom. On his first day, the new president signed executive orders killing the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and recommitting the United States to the Paris climate accord. As a candidate, Biden called for 100 percent clean energy in the U.S. by 2035. He’s integrating climate experts across all departments in “the largest team ever assembled inside the White House to tackle global warming.”
The political sea change is larger than the whims of a single politician. It’s a reflection of the growing, influential force of the clean energy sector itself that will be difficult for serious politicians to ignore forevermore.
How clean energy pros helped POTUS land his new job
Biden didn’t always make clean energy his issue. He responded to the public’s growing concerns about climate change and listened to experts about its immense economic potential.
That didn’t happen by accident. The clean energy sector has been growing and maturing for years, and in this election cycle, it helped Biden land his dream job thanks in part to the all-volunteer organization Clean Energy for Biden (CE4B).
“I’m not just hopeful, I’m pretty convinced [clean energy professionals were politically influential],” Dan Reicher, CE4B co-chair and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy, told me in a phone conversation. “They’ve shown themselves to be very capable in President Biden’s victory and made a real difference.”
CE4B brought together more than 13,000 individuals in all 50 states, including 40 regional affinity groups in key locations across the county. It raised $3.2 million through more than 100 fundraisers and held hundreds of phone banks to get out the vote. The effort brought together impressive, diverse and passionate professionals excited about leaders who understand clean energy. (Full disclosure: I’m a volunteer for CE4B.)
The success of the CE4B’s organizing and campaign efforts inspired organizers to spin out a newly formed nonprofit, Clean Energy for America, which will support candidates and policies that will accelerate the clean energy transition at the state and national levels.
“Clean Energy for America is a recognition that the transformation that we need to address our clean energy challenges and opportunities needs to happen up and down the ballot,” Reicher said. “It’s not enough to work on a presidential campaign and then close up shop. We’ve got to continue on a variety of races on the national level, but we have to get really focused on state and local races as well.”
It’s also a recognition that clean energy professionals are realizing their power and are here to stay. As clean energy continues to disrupt dirty energy incumbents, the sector will grow in numbers and power. It also means those in power today will decide the policy levers that shape our energy future; who benefits and in what way.
Clean Energy for America is continuing with the key tenets of CE4B, organizing around the principles of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion to ensure that the clean energy transition is a just transition for all.
The long road to Clean Energy for America
Before Clean Energy for Biden, there was CleanTech for Hillary. Before that, there was CleanTech for Obama.
The evolution of the name — from cleantech to clean energy — is a reflection of the industry itself.
“We treated it as a technology play, not ready for prime time,” said Reicher, who was involved in each organization. “We now call it clean energy. We had decided we had become mainstream; we were no longer a large tech sector backed by venture capital communities. It is a large, mainstream energy sector backed by large investment firms around the U.S. and world.”
Today, millions work in clean energy (about 3.4 million before the start of the pandemic), and those numbers translated into a larger network.
“We still marvel today at how fast [CE4B] grew to 13,000 people,” Reicher said. “We never saw that level of growth in the other organizations.”
With the birth of Clean Energy for America, the group is poised to continue to mobilize in races quickly. That, combined with the virtuous cycle that promises millions more Americans will be employed by clean energy in the coming decades, plants a clean energy flag in the sand.