Manufacturing an Equitable American Clean Energy Revolution

By Brian Lombardozzi
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Building clean energy infrastructure will be a monumental project. But if we do it right, we will not only address climate change, but begin to take on other societal problems as well.

Editor’s note: This is the third entry in our 10-part series examining the policies and priorities that President-elect Joe Biden should focus on as he lookto lead America out of the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuild the American economy.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, on day one of the new Biden administration, there will only be nine years left to stop the worst consequences of climate change.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to prioritize this crisis, and he can do just that by implementing a national effort to create the jobs needed to build a modern, sustainable infrastructure that also delivers on an equitable clean future. 

The pivot to clean energy must simultaneously address multiple sectors of the U.S. economy, from creating a modern infrastructure to assuring a thriving U.S. auto industry that manufacturers electric vehicle technology invented here in the United States.  We must see an American-made carbon pollution-free power sector, and American-made energy efficient technologies for our built environment, as well as seeing historic investment in clean energy innovation and the domestic deployment of those innovations across the factory floors of the United States. 

America’s infrastructure must be built and manufactured by American workers who have the choice to join a union and collectively bargain. This is also an opportunity to address inequality by training and hiring a diverse and local workforce, providing good-paying manufacturing jobs to women and people of color. 

In this process, Biden must also include workers in coal and power plant communities, who powered the United States from the industrial revolution through decades of economic growth and also deserve the chance to partake and thrive in the prosperity of a clean energy future.

Frontline and fenceline communities must have a seat at the table when the government is making enforcement, remediation, and investment decisions that affect those communities. The properties that currently lay idle, like old power plants and industrial facilities, landfills, unused mines, and other community assets, must be transformed into new economic hubs.  As a nation, we must assure that the investments we make for our clean energy future address the historic disparities we often see along the lines of race and class throughout communities in the United States.

As the United States takes steps to encourage the growth of clean energy generation projects, we also must seize the chance to offer new opportunities to the domestic manufacturers through demand-side policies to create a market for component parts and equipment produced by clean energy manufacturers.

A great deal of clean energy manufacturing occurs here in the United States, and the targeted investments made in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), helped those industries develop. The large sums of public spending toward clean energy projects included a preference for the use of domestic iron, steel and manufactured goods where possible. These investments in domestic clean energy manufacturing in both the renewable energy sector and the energy efficiency sector provided these industries the ability to grow and mature.

However, after the initial ARRA investment, the lack of comprehensive climate change legislation presented the industry with challenges, and essentially left climate change to state governments to address. Biden needs to learn from this, avoid the past mistakes, and build on the progress some states have made.

The United States must apply Buy America preferences to any taxpayer funded procurement of renewable energy or energy efficiency products. This would be a demand side policy that would offer domestic manufacturers a level playing field in this procurement market that also offers a common-sense waiver process when domestic items may not be available.

Other steps the United States could take include a focus on clean energy policies with capital access programs for clean energy manufacturing. Access to capital is one of the largest barriers for clean energy manufacturers, and international competitors have been outpacing the United States in this area. Availability of financing affects not only small to medium entities and start-ups, but established manufacturers hoping to retool and take advantage of the clean energy industry.

Publicly funded financing programs should leverage private investment. This gets the best value out of the public dollar and increases private sector commitment to the industry. The United States likely has an array of economic development programs in place, but improvements can be made to assure clean energy manufacturers benefit from existing programs and the creation of new financing programs would help build a coherent clean energy manufacturing strategy.

For a strong clean energy manufacturing industry to develop in the United States, the new administration must use its resources to keep domestic manufacturers viable and competitive. This is especially important in the emerging clean energy sector, where innovation and new technologies play large roles in a company’s competitiveness. Policy must reflect this by making investments in fostering communication between clean energy manufacturers, consulting firms, and university research resources. This means continuing existing policies that aid clean energy manufacturers, as well as developing new ways to improve and streamline communication between the nation’s best resources.

The Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) is an existing federal program administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Institute of Standards and Technology that offers local access and tailored support for small and mid-size domestic manufacturers. Each state has MEP partners that provide consultation to local businesses on technology innovation and increasing competitiveness. This can be as simple as helping companies improve their energy efficiency to lower costs or as complex as retooling a manufacturer’s equipment, process, and workforce to join a new industry. Using these resources as part of a focused clean energy manufacturing strategy will enable local access to new innovations, university research, and general information on energy efficiency and supply chain development.

The continuation and expansion of these network-building initiatives are an important element of a clean energy manufacturing strategy. While financing for companies might be the most immediate need, collaborative research and innovation efforts like these are what will allow the United States to brand itself as a friendly place for clean energy businesses and encourage further investment and expansion in our domestic clean energy supply chain.

The United States must also analyze the existing workforce training programs and provide recommendations on improving these to meet the needs of the growing clean energy industry in an equitable and just way. It is important for the state to use existing workforce training infrastructure before creating new programs. The United States needs to achieve greater integration between the government and the different institutional participants: training providers, unions, schools, and businesses.

At this critical stage in our nation’s history, creating an American clean energy revolution is possible, and it is something that our nation can do in an inclusive, equitable, and just way that does not leave people behind. In order achieve that goal, America’s manufacturers must have a central role.

The goal shouldn’t be to only make what we currently need, but to expand our domestic capabilities for innovation on the factory floor with new technologies developed and deployed here in the United States by a well-trained, diverse workforce that offers equitable  success for all Americans.  

Listen to Brian Lombardozzi talk about this blog on The Manufacturing Report podcast.