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Hillary Clinton stakes out safe political ground with energy and climate plan

More of this, says Hilary Clinton. Brookhaven National Laboratory, CC BY-NC-ND

Hillary Clinton stakes out safe political ground with energy and climate plan

Earlier this week Hillary Clinton began to unveil components of her policy agenda on energy and climate change. Clinton had previously indicated that these issues would be top priorities if she were to be elected president, but in a video released by her campaign on Sunday night she for the first time included specific objectives. Grabbing the headlines were two aspirational goals regarding renewable energy:

• The United States will have more than half a billion solar panels installed across the country by the end of Hillary Clinton’s first term.

• The United States will generate enough clean renewable energy to power every home in America within ten years of Hillary Clinton taking office.

According to the accompanying analysis provided by the campaign, these goals would equate to a 700% increase in installed solar panels compared to current levels by 2020, and a total of 33% of electricity generated from renewable sources by 2027.

On the surface, these targets sound ambitious. Are they achievable and, from a political point of view, how will the embrace of renewable energy play with voters?

Piggybacking current policies

To achieve these goals, Clinton indicates that she will aggressively defend President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which the EPA is expected to release in its final form in the coming days.

Reaching her renewable energy goals would also require keeping other current policies in place, including the federal solar investment tax credit as well state renewable portfolio standards and net metering policies.

Clinton a day after releasing her energy and climate plan at LEED-certified, energy-efficient bus station in Des Moines, Iowa. Reuters

In this sense, it is important to keep in mind that the goals announced by Clinton would piggyback on existing policies.

That is, even in the absence of new policy, tremendous growth in renewable energy is expected in the coming years, particularly in solar power as detailed in this analysis from Shayle Kahn at Greentech Media.

To generate additional gains, Clinton also announced that she would initiate a Clean Energy Challenge that would leverage partnerships with states, cities, and rural communities to expand the deployment of clean energy. This new program would introduce a grant competition for states that exceed carbon emissions standards and Solar X, a competition among communities to lower the costs of rooftop solar installations.

Resonating on health benefits

Clinton’s policy announcement was met with mixed reaction from the environmental community.

Climate activist Tom Steyer praised the plan, while activist Bill McKibben expressed disappointment that Clinton did not come out in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.

And, while the Clinton campaign has played up the boldness of the plan, some analysts have questioned its ambition.

For example writing for Slate, meteorologist and writer Eric Holthaus concludes that Clinton’s commitments fall considerably short of the clean energy plans of her Democratic primary opponents, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley.

Environmental activists may be divided, but Clinton’s policy goals are likely to strongly resonate with citizens and voters.

It is noteworthy that in releasing these initial components of her energy and climate policy agenda, Clinton focused on renewable energy.

More so than fossil fuels and nuclear power, the American public expresses overwhelming support for the expansion of electricity generated from solar, wind, and other renewable sources. Public opinion surveys over the past decade repeatedly show that upwards of 75% of Americans want to see the use of renewables increased.

Moreover, in justifying her goals, Clinton smartly emphasized the public health benefits (such as premature deaths and asthma attacks avoided) that come from using renewable energy, as opposed to coal and other fossil fuels.

My research with Harvard University’s Steve Ansolabehere shows that people’s perceptions of environmental harms associated with energy use is the most important factor in their support or opposition to different sources of energy.

Clinton’s emphasis on the public health benefits of expanding renewables will increase the public’s receptivity to her proposals.

Harder questions to come

Clinton’s commitment to defend the EPA’s Clean Power Plan will also resonate with many citizens and voters. Unlike a carbon tax or a cap and trade program, EPA regulation of carbon dioxide emissions enjoys strong support among the American public.

Although the political rancor in Washington over the plan – exemplified by the efforts in the Republican controlled Congress to block it – and the opposition in some state capitals might suggest otherwise, public opinion data show that Americans support the EPA’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

For example, a report last year from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that two-thirds of the public supported such limits.

Clinton has promised further policy commitments on energy and climate change, and she (and the rest of the Democratic and Republican candidates) will be asked to stake out positions on controversial issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline, natural gas and oil exports, exploration in the Arctic, coal leasing on public land, as well as whatever the outcome is of the international climate negotiations that will occur in Paris later this year.

Citizens and voters are more divided on these issues than renewable energy and EPA regulation, so it is not a surprise that the campaign has decided, at least for now, to focus on these areas for which there is widespread support.

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