Bernie Sanders wants to nationalize clean energy


The 2020 Democratic Primary is the first time that the nation has seen sophisticated, detailed plans to address the Climate Crisis. And it hasn’t just come from one candidate either; Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren (surprise, surprise) have both released detailed policy proposals, with former candidate Jay Inslee’s work on this subject setting something of a standard against which all other plans could be measured.

For a long time, everyone was asking where Bernie Sanders’ plan was. The Senator from Vermont was known for having a very strong record on climate issues, for supporting U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’ (D-New York) Green New Deal and for emphasizing the issue long before it was popular. But where was his plan?

Yesterday the silence broke with the campaign issuing a bombshell Green New Deal proposal whose energy section went well beyond the rough outlines in the resolution with the same name that was killed in the U.S. Senate. And while we covered the 100% renewable electricity and transportation targets yesterday, that may not even be the most radical part of the plan.

Instead, it may be Sanders’ plan for the government to build, own and run the terawatt or two of new wind and solar that is being planned, and to take a much more active role in power markets.


Federal power

This would would be done through expansion of the Power Marketing Administrations (PMAs) that currently exist.

Currently, four federal Power Marketing Administrations (PMAs) and the Tennessee Valley Authority generate and transmit power to distribution utilities in 33 states.We will create one more PMA to cover the remaining states and territories and expand the existing PMAs to build more than enough wind, solar, energy storage and geothermal power plants. 

This approach is likely to strike many clean energy advocates as ironic, given that among large power companies the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has shown far greater resistance to wind and solar than most private utilities. Ostensibly that would change under a Sanders Administration, as TVA is federally owned; however a leadership sweep at TVA would be a necessary first step.

Katie Thomas, a climate policy advisor for the Sanders Campaign, explained on Twitter how this approach would allow the federal government to both gain revenues from this electricity generation, as well as to reduce its cost.

Thomas has further stated that this would allow the government to drop the price of electricity to “virtually free” after 2035.


Many questions

Energy professionals on Twitter – aka Energy Twitter – had a large number of questions and concerns about Sanders’ plan. While many expressed concerns about how to handle environmental reviews of the incredibly rapid build-outs of both renewable energy and transmission, this would also be altered by having the federal government handle everything, as noted by Ari Peskoe, the director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law.

Then there is the interconnection processes. Peskoe also noted that “connecting $2-3 trillion of new infrastructure in 10 years blows up all existing processes.”

Like many, Peskoe questioned whether or not the expanded federal role would help achieve climate and energy goals. “Industry has deployed about 100 GW of wind and solar over the past decade — tax incentives, state mandates, and other policies have proven scalable,” he told pv magazine. There may be ideological reasons for abandoning these established models, but I’m not sure what the practical advantages are.”

But Peskoe says that he has many other questions:

How are PMAs going to transform into the largest renewable developers? Presumably that hurts existing developers that have experience building big projects. Or will PMAs simply contract with established developers? If it’s a contracting model, why not rely on utilities for that? What’s the point of PMAs as middlemen?

Ari Peskoe also supplied what might be the most poignant understatement regarding the plan to date.

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