October 19, 2020 - From the October, 2020 issue

Nancy Sutley: What Does Building Back Better Mean For Climate & Clean Energy?

Earlier this month, federal courts  began  deliberations on the legality of the Trump Administration’s repeal of the landmark 2013 Clean Power Plan. Just weeks ahead of the 2020 general election, TPR interviewed LADWP Chief Sustainability Officer, Nancy Sutley, who oversaw the plan's development as Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Obama. Sutley shares her insights into crafting federal sustainability practice and her outlook on what a potential Biden administration might do on Day 1 to prioritize climate and clean energy. Her opinions on politics or a possible Biden Administration are hers alone


Nancy Sutley

"How can you shape some of those federal programs so that they're more responsive to climate threats, both in terms of how the federal government can support planning to mitigate hazards before a disaster as well as what happens after— or as the Biden Campaign has been saying, build back better?"—Nancy Sutley

In the Obama administration, you were Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which was a chief architect of the 2013 Climate Action Plan. Imagining a new administration come January 2021, what should be step one for US federal climate change action?

Nancy Sutley: In Vice President Biden's nomination acceptance speech, he talked about the Climate Crisis as one of four crises that the US is now facing, so I would expect there to be a significant amount of action pretty early on—probably on Day 1. The Biden administration would want to address climate change, what the plans and structure will be going forward, and take some decisive action.

He's laid out some targets that are consistent with the science and, for example, with what the City of LA has done: net-zero carbon or carbon neutrality by 2050 and pretty aggressive goals around a carbon-free power sector by 2035. What do you need to do to get that moving? We will see that addressed in a Biden administration, and we'll see them begin, day one, on climate.

Nancy, elaborate on the impact a supportive federal administration could have on green infrastructure investment and clean energy's role in a federal economic recovery plan, assuming a new administration?

If there is a COVID-related economic recovery or stimulus, I expect you'll see some direct spending on clean energy, whether it's on research and development or deployment. You would probably see them weave that into a lot of stimulus spending.

One subject that has come up is how to support transportation electrification—electric vehicles, freight movement, buses, etc. If you look back to 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act had about $90 billion in direct spending on clean energy investments. Based on what the Biden campaign has said and on what Democratic leaders in Congress have said about the stimulus, I would expect to see a fair amount of spending directly on clean energy-related items.

The Biden campaign has talked about it in terms of infrastructure that helps reduce climate pollution and address the impacts of climate change. There are a lot of pieces in process in Congress, like the Surface Transportation bill or the Water Resource Development Act, which funds the Army Corps of Engineers, where I would expect to see climate-related spending and thinking about climate impacts in that spending. So, how the federal government spends money will really be an indication of where a Biden administration would be going on climate.

As one of the architects of the 2013 Climate Action Plan, which Trump administration orders or actions have been most troubling to you in terms of the environment and climate change impacts?

There have been some very troubling rollbacks of regulations and executive action across the board. But I’d point to the action revoking California’s authority to set tougher carbon emissions standards for automakers and substituting them with very weak standards, which is being litigated right now.

They also rolled back the Clean Power Plan, which sought to address GHG emissions from new and existing power plants, and, again, put something very weak in place that doesn't move the ball very much (and is also being litigated). They also changed the regulations for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews for the first time since the 1980s to really narrow their scope and limit public review of federal infrastructure projects to speed up the permitting of freeways, power plants and pipelines. That process is usually an opportunity for the public to understand the environmental impacts of actions the federal government takes.

They rolled back executive orders around sustainability in the federal government, which owns lots of buildings and has big fleets, not to mention the Department of Defense which has a large environmental footprint. They pretty much watered down those standards, which in some cases were goals that started in the Clinton administration and were carried through both Republican and Democratic administrations. So,  it's a target rich environment, as they say, for a Biden administration to take action on climate and to do it fast.

Not all of that was done by executive order, but what can be fixed just by having a new administration in the first 90 days? What's fixable and what's going to take years to address?

What can probably be done on Day 1 is rolling back some of what the Trump administration has done. The easier ones are those that are clearly within the executive discretion of the president—executive orders and presidential memoranda—those are relatively easy to put in place and take away. Changing regulations takes longer because you have to go through notice and comment and develop the justifications.

The president can impact how federal agencies spend money. As long as it's in the federal appropriation, then the president has some discretion and can decide whether to direct and better target some of that spending towards efforts that address climate change, either by reducing climate pollutants or addressing climate risks.

Longer-term is obviously working with Congress on legislation. It will be interesting to see the appointments in the cabinet agencies and in the White House, in terms of who will be point on climate.  Something else to look for is how they intend to structure the federal response to climate change. Right now, a lot of agencies touch various aspects of climate change, whether it's EPA through direct regulation or public lands management by the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service, or other federal land managers. There’s also everything that the Department of Defense does with its large footprint. I expect that they will have some things to say every early on about how they intend to organize the federal government to respond to climate change,

Your tenure as Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality in the Obama administration must have informed your policy work at LA City's Department of Water & Power. Imagining you held that position again in the future, how has LADWP's experience the last four years under the Trump administration informed your understanding of the challenges and opportunities?

First of all, there's a lot that's happening that affects DWP that is very positive looking at climate change. The Eland renewable energy contract that we signed last fall was largest and cheapest solar contract ever anywhere—400 megawatts of solar plus battery storage at a cost that 10 years ago people would have been surprised was even possible has been a very positive development.

There's also greater recognition that in order to solve the climate crisis, you need a very extensive partnership between the federal government and state and local governments, because there are some things that are almost uniquely done at the state and local levels.

Building codes, for example, are largely local. In California’s case, there’s the state energy code. Similarly, on transportation, the land use and transportation choices that can affect climate change are largely made at the state and local level.

For environmental justice and climate justice too, the economic opportunities around clean energy and addressing climate change all happen community by community. I think there will be a recognition that we all have to be in this together.

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TPR recently interviewed LA City Chief Resilience Officer, Aaron Gross, on the climate resilience challenges and wildfires that have been devastating much of California. As a veteran of advancing sustainability, what does the resiliency issue look like in the next few years given what Los Angeles is currently experiencing?

There's a greater and greater recognition of the climate dimension of many of these risks, whether it's wildfire or drought in California or flooding and hurricanes in other parts of the country. It calls on all of us to be better prepared and to recognize that we're going to have to be smart about how we deal with these issues.

You've got to look at where are the opportunities for federal policy to support what’s possible on the ground. The impact may vary from place to place; we don’t get too many hurricanes in Southern California, but the process of being prepared is beneficial regardless. There are things about the way the federal government responds to disasters that don't necessarily help you prepare for the next disaster or recognize where the risks are magnified.

For example, the Stafford Act, which is how state and local governments access federal disaster relief for emergencies, largely provides federal funding to put things back the way they were. We're recognizing now that that's not always the best approach in the long term considering the changing climate. So, how can you shape some of those federal programs so that they're more responsive to climate threats, both in terms of how the federal government can support planning to mitigate hazards before a disaster as well as what happens after— or as the Biden Campaign has been saying, build back better? That's going to be an important dimension of what the federal government can do to help support communities as they face these impacts of climate change.

What do VX News readers need to understand about the diverse interests and political agenda of the rest of the country when it comes to these issues and policies?

Climate threats and vulnerabilities are different around the country, and when you're dealing with fifty states plus territories, there's a lot of diversity of opinion on what to do and how quickly to move to address climate change. Congress has not really played a role in a big way, although there's certainly been a lot of interest among Democrats in both the House and Senate putting forth ideas and big reports around addressing the climate crisis.

But, there's a lot of interest around the country in electric vehicles, either for addressing local air pollution, growing the market for electric vehicles, or in some cases, as an economic opportunity in manufacturing, either by the traditional automakers or new entrants in the auto sector in places like Ohio.

There is some growing recognition of the economic opportunities associated with clean energy even from utilities that have traditionally been reluctant. We've even seen the retirement of coal plants across the country, in blue states and lots of red states, because the economics are much better, and so some utilities have been converting coal plants to natural gas or, in some cases, developing renewable energy sources. There's a lot happening in the marketplace even outside of action by the federal government, but supportive federal policies recognizing that different states are in different places and also the urgency of climate change is something we could see and would be very helpful.

Many recent interviewees have noted the value of looking at green hydrogen as a source for the fuel mix of the future. Could you speak to that from a local and national perspective?

There had been some interest in hydrogen mostly as a transportation fuel, but now the technology is moving to a place where it is potentially very useful in power production—something they've been doing in Europe for a number of years. With power-to-gas, you can mix hydrogen in with pipeline gas and produce electricity with a lower carbon footprint.

There's more interest, more research, and more technology being developed that could unlock hydrogen as a really valuable part of the fuel mix. The idea that LADWP is looking at would take excess renewable energy when it's available and use it to produce and store hydrogen to potentially give us long-duration energy storage, which is going to be an incredible part of reliably managing the integration of renewable energy into the grid everywhere in the country. When the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining, you need all kinds of storage—short, medium, and long-term—and hydrogen can really play a part in that.

Looking at how hydrogen would fit into the LADWP system, both for the Intermountain Power project in Utah and, potentially down the line, whether that can be incorporated into our local generation, is a really exciting topic. It's something that could interest many utilities across the country as another option that adds to the diversity of the fuel mix.

Can you elaborate on the current alignment and collaboration between the Chief Sustainability officers—your counterparts— at the cities of LA County, and the county?

One of the first things that accompanied Mayor Garcetti’s original Sustainable City pLAn was an executive directive that created the role of Chief Sustainability Officer in city departments. There are regular meetings among the city's CSOs and the Mayor’s office, so that collaboration and cooperation has been very good. Similarly, the city and the county have been meeting regularly to calibrate each of their plans to make sure they’re working together.  We all see each other a lot, virtually, and have a lot of opportunities to collaborate even if it’s in two-dimensions.

VerdeXchange hosted a series of virtual Hackathon sessions in September focused on innovative solutions that could expedite deployment of a Green New Deal. What remaining obstacles to deploying clean technologies that move the region towards decarbonization can we look forward to?

The power sector is certainly on target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We’re expected to be 80 percent below our 1990 levels no later than 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2050. There are opportunities for innovation and  technology developments around the end-uses of energy because how you use the energy has a lot to do with its carbon profile. How much energy our buildings use? How much energy and carbon is associated with the transportation sector? And with mobility and goods movement, how can we be sure to integrate low carbon technologies and techniques into end-uses of energy? Whether its electrifying buildings as the grid gets cleaner and electrifying the transportation sector, what does mobility mean in a low carbon world? How do we ensure people have mobility options? There’s lots of opportunities for innovation in all those areas.

Lastly, on water. Is there anything in the water technology sector that the City could do to make improvements?

Water use accounts for a lot of the energy end-use in California. Whether its pumping water over the mountains or heating water in your home, there's opportunity to innovate in terms of that embedded energy in our water sector. Better understanding about how people use water, how we track water, and being able to apply those technologies to better understand how we manage our water system is just beneficial all the way around.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.