The United States is struggling to squeeze opportunity out of an energy crisis that should have been a catalyst for cleaner, domestically produced power. After decades of putting the climate on the back burner, the country is finding itself unprepared to seize the moment and at risk of emerging from the crisis even more reliant on fossil fuels.
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The problem is not entirely unique to the United States. Across the globe, climate leaders are warning that energy shortages prompted by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and high gas prices driven by inflation threaten to make the energy transition an afterthought — potentially thwarting efforts to keep global temperature rise under 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“The energy crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine has seen a perilous doubling down on fossil fuels by the major economies,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said at a conference in Vienna on Tuesday, according to prepared remarks. He warned governments and investors that a failure to immediately and more aggressively embrace clean energy could be disastrous for the planet.
U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry suggested that nations are falling prey to a flawed logic that fossil fuels will help them weather this period of instability, which has seen gas prices climb to a record-high national average of $5 per gallon. “You have this new revisionism suggesting that we have to be pumping oil like crazy, and we have to be moving into long-term [fossil fuel] infrastructure building,” he said at the Time100 Summit in New York this month. “We have to push back.”
Climate envoy John F. Kerry attends the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles on June 8. Kerry has criticized the tendency to turn toward fossil fuels in times of uncertainty. (Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images)
In the United States — the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China — the hurdles go beyond the supply chain crunch and sanctions linked to the war in Ukraine. The country’s lofty goals for all carbon pollution to be gone from the electricity sector by 2035 and for half the cars sold to be electric by 2030 are jeopardized by years of neglect of the electrical grid, regulatory hurdles that have set projects back years, and failures by Congress and policymakers to plan ahead.
The challenges are further compounded by plans to build costly new infrastructure for drilling and exporting natural gas that will make it even harder to transition away from the fossil fuel.
“We are running into structural challenges preventing consumers and businesses from going cleaner, even at this time of high oil and gas prices,” said Paul Bledsoe, a climate adviser in the Clinton administration who now works on strategy at the Progressive Policy Institute, a center-left think tank. “It is a little alarming that even now, Congress is barely talking about clean energy.”
Consumers are eager for more wind and solar. Companies looking to go carbon-neutral are facing growing waitlists for access to green energy, and a Pew Research Center poll in late January found that two-thirds of Americans want the United States to prioritize alternative energy over fossil fuel production.
But lawmakers have balked for more than a decade at making most of the fundamental economic and policy changes that experts widely agree are crucial to an orderly and accelerated energy transition. The United States does not have a tax on carbon, nor a national cap-and-trade program that would reorient markets toward lowering emissions. The unraveling in Congress of President Biden’s $1.75 trillion Build Back Better plan has added to the head winds that green-energy developers face.
Vice President Harris tours electric school buses at Meridian High School in Falls Church, Va., on May 20. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
“There is literally nothing pushing this forward in the U.S. beyond the tax code and some state laws,” said Heather Zichal, a former White House climate adviser who is now the chief executive of the American Clean Power Association.
The effects of the U.S. government’s halting approach are being felt by solar-panel installers, who saw the number of projects in the most recent quarter fall to the lowest level since the pandemic began. There was 24 percent less solar installed in the first quarter of 2022 than in the same quarter of 2021.
The holdup largely stems from a Commerce Department investigation into alleged tariff-dodging by Chinese manufacturers. Faced with the potential for steep retroactive penalties, hundreds of industrial-scale solar projects were frozen in early April. Weak federal policies to encourage investment in solar manufacturing left American companies ill-equipped to fill the void.
“We shut down multiple projects and had to lay off dozens of people,” said George Hershman, chief executive of SOLV Energy, which specializes in large solar installations. SOLV, like dozens of other solar companies, is now scrambling to reassemble those projects after the administration announced a pause of the tariffs.
Meanwhile, adding clean electricity to the power grid has become an increasingly complicated undertaking, given the failure to plan for adequate transmission lines and long delays connecting viable wind and solar projects to the electricity network.