Congressman Paul Tonko, a Democrat representing New York, says he’s optimistic about the prospects of targeted pieces of clean energy legislation moving through Congress in the coming months, including an extension of tax credits for both solar and wind.

“A comprehensive climate bill is not going to be possible this Congress, but we know there are meaningful policies that stand a chance of garnering bipartisan, bicameral support in this current moment,” Tonko said at the recent Clean Energy Week summit in Washington, D.C.

Tax policy was the first area he identified as being ripe for progress.

Tonko, who serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee and chairs the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, noted that a letter of support for “critical clean energy tax credits” continues to gain momentum in the House of Representatives. The letter calls for extending tax credits to both solar and wind energy, as well as creating incentives to additional clean energy technologies, including energy storage, energy efficiency and offshore wind.

In July, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House introduced legislation that would extend the solar Investment Tax Credit for five years at its full 30 percent value. Democrats introduced companion legislation in the Senate, but neither bill has advanced.

Tonko said is he is confident the legislation will move.

“We’ve had several communications with the chair of the Ways and Means Committee; we’ve talked to members [and] we’ve talked to staff. They are very open to the push that we are making,” he said in an interview on the event's sidelines.

Tonko said he has urged Democratic House leadership to include tax policy updates in any agenda they put forward, and so far the response has been positive.

“I think the odds are good,” he said. “They really want to do a green tax policy package.”

But even if the House succeeds in passing a pro clean technology tax bill, it would still have to pass through the Republican-controlled Senate. When asked how he sees tax legislation making it past Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Tonko said that he sees public opinion forcing Republicans to act.

“The public sentiment is driving this issue right now. There’s no denying it’s really risen exponentially in the polls,” he said. “And so I think that this is one of the things [Senate Republicans] can do without feeling like they don’t have the numbers that they need.”

“The public sentiment driving this may make the difference,” he added.

Is activism translating to policy action?

Numerous polls show that Americans widely support the deployment of renewable energy. A Gallup survey from March, for instance, found that 80 percent of respondents believe the U.S. should put more emphasis on producing domestic energy from solar, and 70 percent believe there should be greater emphasis on wind.

Last fall, the Yale Program for Climate Communication released a report that found nearly 80 percent of respondents support offering tax credits for rooftop solar and just over 70 percent support providing incentives to individuals for the purchase of an electric vehicle.

Recent youth climate strikes have amplified calls for accelerating the deployment of renewable energy resources and increasing government spending on green energy plans.

Despite this momentum, Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, expressed skepticism that clean energy legislation would move in the Senate soon. 

“The majority leader decides what we can vote on,” Romney said at the Clean Energy Week summit. “If it’s something maybe three or four of his members would find uncomfortable for [their] reelection campaigns, then it may be something he doesn’t want to put on the floor.”

“So the politics have to change,” he continued. “You have to have a stronger...perspective [that] this is something that will affect your reelection.”

Are climate strikes shifting U.S. politics? Listen to our discussion in this recent episode of Political Climate.

For Romney at least, U.S. clean energy policy is all about expanding the use of American technology and expertise around the world. While he didn’t explicitly call for extending the existing tax credits for wind and solar, he acknowledged that investment tax credits are a compelling way to support greater technology adoption. Romney also backed the concept of a carbon tax and dividend program.

“Those are two models that create incentives for innovation,” he said. “For me, that’s how I look at these different ideas related to the climate. It’s not just [whether it] will make America emit less CO2 and methane, but [also whether] it will lead to the adoption of technology around the world. Because that’s the only way we’re going to get the curve of CO2 and methane…to come down.”

Congressman Matt Gaetz, Republican from Florida and author of the Green Real Deal — the Republican response to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal — said last month that he believes Congress and the White House could back some form of carbon-pricing mechanism.

“I believe that we could have a pollution tariff that would be embraced by the president, his allies and potentially those on the left who would like to see more responsible and effective approaches to climate change,” he said.

An icy Washington, D.C.

Tax mechanisms aren’t the only type of clean energy policy that could get caught up in Washington, D.C.'s glacial political process.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee recently reported 21 energy and water bills out of committee on a largely bipartisan basis, including the Grid Modernization Act of 2019Energy Cybersecurity Act of 2019 and the Smart Building Acceleration Act of 2019.

The committee also passed the BEST Act, which would require the Department of Energy to deploy up to five large-scale energy storage demonstration projects and develop a 10-year strategic plan and cost targets for grid-scale energy storage systems.

These bills move the Senate closer to forming a comprehensive energy innovation package, but will remain stalled until the majority leader brings them to the floor. Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has acknowledged that legislation is slow-moving right now, but said she will continue to tee up bills with bipartisan, bicameral support for whenever Sen. McConnell is ready to move them forward.

In the House, Rep. Gaetz placed the blame squarely on Democratic leaders for not advancing legislation that both parties already agree on. For instance, he sees no reason why Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on investing in the electrical grid to support the deployment of all available clean energy technologies, including nuclear and hydropower.

“This is a distinct departure from the crony-capitalism policy of using government as a venture capitalist, ingrained with a specific company or a specific business model,” he said. “An electric grid is a platform that can be used by all innovators.”

“It’s so frustrating to me to see the polar ice caps melt while this town remains frozen,” he added.

New bills on DERs, EVs and transmission

Meanwhile, Rep. Tonko said he's not sitting idle. He's focused on advancing legislation that will restore budget cuts to the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and ARPA-E research program.

In addition, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has already advanced several efficiency bills, including authorization for a weatherization program, which he hopes will come to the floor before the end of the year.

Tonko said he's also working on a new set of bills to streamline the permitting process for distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar, deploying more publicly accessible EV charging infrastructure, and improving the regional planning process for transmission lines needed to support vast amounts of remotely located renewable energy. More details are expected in the months ahead.

At the same time, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will continue to hold hearings on legislation introduced in July to develop a 100 percent clean economy, defined as producing net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with upcoming hearings on heavy-duty transportation and the power sector.

Tonko said it’s imperative that policymaking “go beyond research funding and tax mechanisms.” But he did not offer any forecasts for when a more comprehensive climate and clean energy bill would pass.

“We are committed to taking this rigorous approach, trying to build consensus and relying on policies that are based on business and engineering, not politics,” he said.

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