The Focus of Renewable Energy Remains Climate Change

Jerry Elmer

A few days ago, I posted a blog on CLF’s website about a newly published study that quantifies the economic-development benefits of renewable energy Distributed Generation (DG). You can read that earlier blog post, here.

In my prior blog, I quoted from the executive summary of the DG Study that said: “The study finds that the [DG program] . . . will result in net positive economic output, job gains, criteria pollutant emissions reductions, carbon emissions reductions, and positive state revenues over the period 2014-2038.” And I summed up the the economic conclusions of the study, thus: “[T]he state reaps economic benefits of $30.65 million per annum, or $556 million over the life of the program (discounted to present value!) at per-ratepayer cost that is almost exactly half of the price of one cup of coffee per month!”

Everything I stated in my earlier blog post was true.  Every figure I cited from the Brattle Report was cited correctly and was completely accurate. My blog was both technically accurate and fairly presented.

However, I sometimes worry about us environmentalists touting the economic benefits of renewable energy. The fact of the matter is that we environmentalists support renewable energy because there is a climate change emergency in the world. The world is hurtling toward a human-created disaster because of carbon pollution. And, although we recognize that there are economic benefits from renewable energy, we do not view renewable energy as primarily a job-creation program.

Let me make an analogy. Think of the United States Supreme Court case that affirmed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294 (1964). The case challenging the statute had been brought by Ollie McClung, owner of Ollie’s Barbecue, in Birmingham, Alabama.  Ollie McClung’s argument was the essence of simplicity: this is a free country; the government cannot force me to serve people (blacks) if I choose not to do so.

As everyone today knows, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act.  But the majority opinion, written by Justice Tom Clark, did so on the basis of the Commerce Clause! This is what Justice Clark’s opinion said:  Ollie’s Barbecue is a family-owned restaurant in Birmingham Alabama, specializing in barbecued meats and homemade pies. It is located 11 blocks from an interstate highway and near a railroad station and a bus station.  In the 12 months preceding the passage of the Act, the restaurant purchased approximately $150,000 of food, of which 46%, or $69,683, was meat procured from outside the state.  Some of Ollie’s customers were long-haul truckers who came off the nearby Interstate for a meal. Thus, this case is really about interstate commerce, because both the meat served and some of the patrons eating it had come from out of state. The Commerce Clause in Article I, Section 8, gives Congress the right to control interstate commerce. Therefore. the landmark Civil Rights Act is constitutional because this case is all about commerce.

To his credit, Justice Goldberg wrote concurring opinions saying that the Civil Rights Act was not mainly about commerce (though surely there were economic implications), but rather about human rights: “The primary purpose of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . . . is the vindication of human dignity and not mere economics.”

So, too, with renewable energy. We environmentalists believe that renewable energy is not mainly about economics and job creation (though there surely are economic benefits to reap) but rather about climate change. We support renewable energy because the consequences of climate change can be catastrophic for humankind, and we want to leave a safer planet to our children and grandchildren’s generations.

The Commerce Clause may be applicable to civil rights, but, in the end, Justice Goldberg was right:  the civil rights act was really about human dignity, not commerce. And renewable energy does create jobs; but, in the end, renewable energy is not about money but about saving the planet.

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