The climate emergency can be resolved.
Stokes says that if the plan isn’t carried out well, it will be bad for carbon emissions and show lawmakers that this is a hopeless cause.
And in America, that entails remodelling 140 million homes.
After ten years of legal wrangling, Vineyard Wind, the state’s first significant offshore wind farm, is finally starting to be built.
The head of Clean Energy New Hampshire, Sam Evans-Brown, claims that only 5% of Massachusetts’ installed solar power is present in his state.
In the United States, there are around 144 million houses. Eighty-five million of them, or roughly two-thirds of them, are detached single-family homes; the remainder are either apartments or trailers. That is how prosperous America is: since the end of the Second World War, our great riches have been used primarily to construct larger homes that are further removed from one another. About 290 million automobiles, of which an estimated 91% run on gasoline as of August, are parked in garages, driveways, or on neighboring streets. The vast majority of these homes are heated with natural gas or oil. All those homes made of wood, brick, steel, and concrete took centuries to construct, but if we’re going to make any headway against the climate problem, we only have a few years to rebuild them.
The climate discussion has largely taken place in people’s minds and hearts up until now. It took thirty years to convince political officials to take it seriously, first by getting them to acknowledge that the globe was warming and then by getting them to accept that humans were to blame. The Inflation Reduction Act, however, which allows hundreds of billions of dollars for the process of restructuring the country so that it uses a great deal less fossil fuel, was eventually passed by Congress this year. So the conflict now shifts from minds and hearts to dwellings. “Emissions come from tangible things,” Tom Steyer, a businessman and manager of an investment firm concentrating on funding climate solutions after running for president in 2020, told me. “Buildings, power plants, automobiles, and other items you can touch all produce emissions. It cannot be infinitely replicated, unlike information technology. One thing at a time is the rule here.
So, the most important question is how to move from encouragement and examples to implementation and deployment. The most efficient way to generate power is to point a sheet of glass at the sun, according to the engineers’ very affordable and wonderfully beautiful invention. The federal government is injecting the cleanest money ever into the economy. But is it genuinely possible? Or is it just too hard to do, especially since the fossil fuel industry is always against it?
Leah Stokes, an energy specialist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told me, “So many of us are fatigued.” During the I.R.A.’s difficult twenty-month journey through the Senate, Stokes was a key architect of essential parts. At one point, she was writing a bill while in a neonatal intensive care unit with her newborn twins. However, the battle against dirty energy is about to change. The climate emergency can be resolved.
BlocPower founder and CEO Donnel Baird remarked, “Now is the moment for the doers, the implementers, the folks willing to roll up their sleeves and dig.” The son of Guyanese immigrants who heated their Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, home by turning on the gas oven and leaving the door open, Baird had already gathered $100 million before the I.R.A. was passed to work on electrifying entire towns across the nation. He told me, “If we can green a building, we can green a block.” “We can green a neighbourhood, a city, and a block if we can do it.” So let’s do that and demonstrate to everyone that it is possible.
Billy Parish told me last month that “we’re in head-down, drive-deployment mode.” Mosaic, which is run by Parish, is one of the biggest lenders to solar projects in the country. Along with Airbnb and the real estate brokerage Redfin, it was one of the companies that joined the White House last month to discuss plans to teach homeowners how to get I.R.A. money. “There is a lot of clean energy that needs to be developed,” he remarked.
These individuals have spent years addressing the climate crisis. Steyer and I have been fighting pipelines and fossil fuel investments for a long time. I met Parish a few years after he dropped out of Yale in 2002 to start the Energy Action Coalition, one of the first important school climate action groups in the United States. Despite their enthusiasm, they are concerned. Stokes says that if the plan isn’t carried out well, it will be bad for carbon emissions and show lawmakers that this is a hopeless cause. During the Obama administration, Baird gave the Department of Energy advice on how to create green jobs. The Obama administration also gave money to renewable energy, but it was much less. He explained that the building greening project he worked on, for which we had $6.5 billion, brought in an additional $90 billion in private financing. And even then, we weren’t really able to pull it off. We were unable to use the private money for investment. The I.R.A. implementation still needs a lot of work, and if we don’t do it well, the politicians will claim, “We tried, but this didn’t work, and we don’t know why.” Next time, it will be two or three times harder. There is now a more concerted assault against sustainable energy, Parish said. Even though it’s still quite popular, it’s getting increasingly divisive.
Since addressing the climate crisis requires, essentially, changing everything, the concern is not that nothing will get done but rather that not enough will. And in America, that entails remodelling 140 million homes. Basically, this means replacing furnaces, gas burners, and internal combustion engines with heat pumps, induction cooktops, and electric cars. According to Ari Matusiak, the CEO of Rewiring America, a group that informs communities about electrification grants available to them through the I.R.A., “We estimate that there are a billion machines in American households that need to be swapped out.” Making sure such machines are clean is essential for success. Because the market for products, labor, and machines is a market for fossil fuels, Matusiak claimed that the market “won’t do it on its own.” “There are gas pipes in my house.” The contractor won’t sell me a heat pump even though it would be better if my furnace or water heater went down. They will try to sell me something to replace what I already have.
In an odd way, the closer you get to the work, the larger it appears. Take Boston, where Mayor Michelle Wu has been the most outspoken supporter of environmental politics of any city leader in the country. Boston is also the hometown of Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, whose campaign for the Green New Deal helped pass the I.R.A. Additionally, Maura Healey, who rose to fame as the state’s attorney general by fighting the fossil fuel industry for deceiving the public about climate change, will take over as governor of Massachusetts as of the beginning of the next month. Boston voted nearly five to one in favor of Biden in 2020, while Massachusetts did so by a margin of more than two to one. But Massachusetts as a whole has three million homes, whereas Boston has about 30,000. Even getting new buildings to switch to electricity is hard. As attorney general, Healey had to figure out that town laws couldn’t stop gas hookups in newly built buildings because that was against state law. And only a portion of the issue is being able to convince homeowners (and landlords) to replace gas-powered appliances. To power the new ones, you must also create a steady supply of clean electricity using solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries.
An engineer who works with renewable energy in Massachusetts told me that his state needs close to 10 gigawatts of electricity to meet current needs. After ten years of legal wrangling, Vineyard Wind, the state’s first significant offshore wind farm, is finally starting to be built. When completed, it will produce less than half a gigawatt of electricity. He questioned, “Can Massachusetts construct the required 25 offshore wind farms in a decade?” Massachusetts at least has something. The head of Clean Energy New Hampshire, Sam Evans-Brown, claims that only 5% of Massachusetts’ installed solar power is present in his state. Everyone wants renewables because they are cheap, but there are significant gaps in our ability to implement them, according to him.
Some of those holes are the same kinds that appear whenever a major new industrial challenge arises. For instance, Rewiring America projects that the nation will require a million new electricians to complete the necessary new wiring. The largest solar firm in New Hampshire, according to Evans-Brown, “took their entire marketing team and said, ‘Stop selling solar panels, they’re selling themselves.'” The entire marketing department is now exclusively focused on hiring electricians. It shouldn’t be impossible to accomplish that. Evans-Brown said that he and his wife, Aubrey Nelson, had been to the northern part of the state the previous weekend. While there, she chatted with “a group of teenagers from a technical high school, working on a house that was being restored.” In order to determine where the house was leaking, they performed blower-door tests and took out the thermal cameras. And the instructor predicted that these men would be able to earn six figures from construction. Although it’s a success story, it doesn’t get enough attention. The size of the task is highlighted by Eugene Kirpichov, the founder of a brand-new nonprofit organization called Work on Climate. He urged people to “compare this to a mainstream industry like software.” “Every school teaches it, and everyone thinks it’s cool and knows who the major employers are.” There are tens of thousands of recruiting firms and thousands of boot camps. He claims that there are tens of thousands of people involved in the climate jobs community right now, but that we need millions more.