Power to the people: Bernie calls for federal takeover of electricity production

Source: By GAVIN BADE, Politico • Posted: Sunday, February 9, 2020

Sanders wants federally owned utilities to build massive amounts of wind and solar to compete with private generators, but critics say that would complicate an already tricky transition to clean energy.

The Sanders campaign has defended its plan as the only one that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough to meaningfully combat climate change, and his allies have applauded his desire to take on the utility industry, which for decades resisted climate action.

“This threat is beyond ideology — it’s a question of life and death,” said Sanders’ national policy director Josh Orton. “That’s why [Bernie’s] plan is not only the most comprehensive, but is truly the only plan that makes the investments necessary to prevent irreversible damage to the planet.”

Critics say the Sanders plan would dramatically shrink the utility companies like Dominion, Duke Energy and Exelon that have major power-producing businesses. And they worry that saddling the federal utilities with a massive green power mandate would hamper the thriving renewable energy industry and complicate an already slow transition to a low-carbon economy.

“This isn’t health care,” said Pat Wood III, the former chairman of the board at generator Dynegy and Republican head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under President George W. Bush. “We don’t need more cost-effective [clean energy] supplier options. There are plenty of them.”

Representatives of the American Public Power Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represent municipal and customer-owned utilities, declined to comment on the plan. The Edison Electric Institute, which represents privately owned utilities, did not respond to a request.

Sanders plans to use the EPA to set strict carbon dioxide emissions limits — much more stringent than the Obama EPA’s rules for power plants that were rolled back by the Trump administration — to force utilities to retire coal and gas plants. To replace that electricity, local utilities could buy renewable energy from the federal utilities, or from clean power plants owned by privately owned generators.

Reshaping the federal utilities would be no simple task: It would require Congress to amend multiple laws authorizing the entities, like the Tennessee Valley Act and DOE Organization Act, likely along with the Clean Air Act to give the EPA stronger authority to regulate carbon. Even if Democrats were to win control of the Senate in November, those plans would still face a tough path in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where the top Democrat, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, has been a staunch supporter of the coal and natural gas industries. Manchin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.