Green jobs, solar and industrial policy at the first Democratic debate

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On orders from the Democratic National Committee, there will be no debate specifically on dealing with climate change – which 100 activists showed up at DNC headquarters on Tuesday to call for. And NBC News moderators took their own sweet time to get to the issue in the first debate among Democratic candidates for president (full video here, transcript here).

It took nearly an hour and a half for Jose Diaz-Balart, Savannah Guthrie, Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow to get around to asking a question specifically on climate change, which was followed by three other related questions including the potential for Miami to flood and plans to price carbon, mostly framed within the potential for public backlash.

The entire section lasted for less than nine minutes, a tiny portion of the two-hour debate. This lack of prioritization and the framing of this subject was largely greeted with disgust by the climate and energy community on Twitter.

But despite this ham-handed handling of the issue by the talking heads of the network television world, the Democratic candidates present – at least three of whom have published detailed plans to mitigate climate change – had plenty to say about not only climate, but also green jobs, industrial policy and specifically solar, EV and other clean energy manufacturing.

 

Jobs, jobs, jobs

The most obvious aspect of the way that candidates dealt with the issue of decarbonization was the emphasis on economic mobilization. While no one uttered the words Green New Deal, the emphasis on putting people to work to combat climate change was one of the main ways that candidates addressed this issue.

And this was not only Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D), who has been particularly outspoken on this issue, and who estimated that his plan would put 8 million Americans to work. Every candidate had something to say on this issue, with U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) repeatedly mentioning building the green economy and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) speaking about the need to increase clean energy research and development investment ten-fold.

There was also a strong current of economic nationalism. Warren stated that she plans to require that corporations manufacture in the United States if they wanted to access government-funded clean energy R&D, and estimated that this would create 1.2 million manufacturing jobs.

But it was U.S. Representative Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) who really took on this issue, early in the debate calling for an industrial policy that would result in half the world’s electric vehicles being built in the United States, and had strong words about the solar industry as well:

I want to dominate the solar industry, and manufacture those here in the United States.

 

Inslee owns the issue – mostly

Unsurprisingly, it was Inslee who had perhaps the best lines of the evening connecting jobs to clean energy.

Look, Donald Trump is simply wrong. He says wind turbines cause cancer. We know they cause jobs. And we know that we can put millions of people to work in the clean energy jobs of the future. Carpenters, IBEW members, machinists, we’re doing it in my state today. And then we can do what America always does: lead the world and invent the future and put people to work.

However, despite no one pushing harder on the issue of climate change than Inslee, he slipped late in the debate. When asked what the greatest threat to America was, he stated that it was Donald Trump, which allowed Beto O’Rourke to capture the moment, declaring that climate change is “our existential threat.” This was followed by Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Julian Castro all featuring climate change in their responses.

 

Real-world experience

At least three candidates have issued detailed plans to mitigate climate change, which we at pv magazine have covered: Beto O’Rourke, Jay Inslee and Elizabeth Warren. However, in the debate Inslee got to claim that he is the only candidate that has gotten a mandate to decarbonize electricity passed, noting that this policy has been called “the gold standard of putting people to work.”

But while Washington has been a national leader under Inslee, he is not the only candidate who has experience with renewable energy. Julian Castro served as mayor of San Antonio before becoming the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development with former President Obama. During this time the city’s municipal utility, CPS Energy, signed deals not only to get some of the first large-scale solar plants built, but also to bring a manufacturing trifecta of modules, inverters and single-axis trackers to the city.

Two of these businesses are still operating, Sun Action Trackers and module maker Mission Solar Energy. But perhaps the greater legacy of CPS’ procurement is that it jump-started the booming utility-scale solar market in Texas. CPS’ actions were followed by Austin Energy and other municipal utilities, and over the next five years Texas is expected to compete with Florida for the position of the second-largest solar market in the United States after California.

 

Climate framing

But while several Democratic candidates had both thoughtful statements and/or experience to draw from, in his closing statement it was Inslee who owned the issue of decarbonization, delivering a brief but powerful address that underscored the seriousness of the issue:

Our grandchildren, we love them all. And when I was thinking about whether to run for president, I made a decision. I decided that on my last day on Earth, I wanted to look them in the eye and tell them I did everything humanly possible to protect them from the ravages of the climate crisis.

And I know to a moral certainty, if we do not have the next president who commits to this as the top priority, it won’t get done. And I am the only candidate – frankly, I’m surprised – I’m the only candidate who’s made this commitment to make it the top priority.

If you join me in that recognition of how important this is, we can have a unified national mission. We can save ourselves. We can save our children. We can save our grandchildren. And we can save literally the life on this planet. This is our moment.

This first debate featured 10 candidates, and among the 10 Elizabeth Warren is the only one who is in the top three in the polls. Tonight will be the second debate with another 10 candidates featuring front-runners Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. pv magazine USA will bring you coverage of the second debate as well, to be published tomorrow morning.