McCormack Speaks

October 21, 2020
by jackli001
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From COVID Economy to Clean Energy Economy

By David W. Cash, Dean, McCormack Graduate School

While the House, Senate and White House are at the brink of a recovery deal, the economic impacts of COVID-19 become even more stark. The pandemic and its most recent spikes have wiped out jobs and shuttered businesses, with the already disadvantaged bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Out of this devastation, it will be a big win if Congress and the White House can eventually take significant steps toward protecting those families and businesses on the edge of economic collapse.

But we also have the opportunity not just for a win, but for a win-win. If future stimulus packages in the US strategically transform a foundation of our way of life – our energy system – to seize multiple benefits, in addition to rebuilding the economy, we will be judged in the future as having generated opportunity from crisis. As a recent report in Science outlines, this idea could be effective globally and cost a fraction of what COVID response spending is likely to be: “We show that low-carbon investments to put the world on an ambitious track toward net zero carbon dioxide emissions by mid-century are dwarfed by currently announced COVID-19 stimulus funds.” [1]

So as the debate drags on, we face a crucial crossroads.

One possible path would direct federal funding towards recreating our previously unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels and its devastating impact on health, geopolitical stability, and the climate.

Alternatively, we can choose a path where investments support jobs that will transform our energy system and make it cheaper, more reliable, more home-grown, more just, cleaner, and more sustainable for future generations. The US would reestablish leadership in the global clean energy marketplace, provide jobs across rural, suburban and urban communities, and begin to redress the disproportionate environmental impacts that marginal communities have endured.

What might this path look like? These guideposts could help.

Massive renewable energy deployment: The 2009 stimulus investments launched a renewable revolution where solar and wind became cheaper than natural gas in some places. And of course, once built, the fuel for solar and wind is free and clean. The right market signals like long-term production and investment tax credits can provide incentives to solidify renewable technologies.

Energy storage commercialization: Since the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, storage – advanced batteries – will be necessary to provide full-time power. On the cusp of affordable commercial-scale and residential-scale storage technologies, large federal investment could push technologies into the marketplace.

Energy efficiency everywhere: Energy efficiency is still the cheapest “source” of energy. Some states have unleashed efficiency, but federal dollars could triple state utility investments in energy efficiency. And since the return on investment is so good, this could more than quadruple ratepayers’ savings on energy bills.

Infrastructure investments: Study after study show that our electric grid needs major upgrades, especially when we add offshore wind, electric vehicles and storage. Strategic and significant investments now will make our economy ready for the smart clean energy future.

Job growth: Stimulus dollars must target sectors poised to grow and train workers. The clean energy sector has demonstrated success in this regard over the last 15 years. And many of these jobs stay here, like energy auditors (can’t outsource), solar panel installers (can’t outsource), wind turbine maintenance workers (can’t outsource), and energy efficiency retrofitters (can’t outsource).

Transportation Transformation: Other countries are racing to capture the global electric vehicle (EV) market. Unfortunately, we are ceding that market to China, Germany and India. And public transit systems in the US are in disrepair and underfunded. Stimulus funds for the manufacture and sale of EVs, and for public transit to become world-class, will reap big benefits in reducing congestion, generating manufacturing jobs, creating cleaner air, and providing consumers with vehicles that are cheaper to run and maintain.

Research and Development (R&D): Deep investments in energy R&D in public research labs, the private sector, and universities have always reaped big economic benefits. These would help develop the technologies of the future now and add to job growth.

More Equal Energy: All of the above investments must target low-income communities and communities of color which have not always benefited from clean energy economic growth. Now is the time to assure energy equity.

The right path is clear. The window of opportunity is limited. The consequences of the alternatives are dire. The next stimulus bill should provide a win-win and help solidify our travel to the clean energy future.

David W. Cash is the Dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and a former Commissioner in the Department of Public Utilities and Department of Environmental Protection in Massachusetts.


[1] Marina Andrijevic and Schleussner, C-F., Gidden, M.J., McCollum, D.L., and Rogelj, J. (2020) COVID-19 recovery funds dwarf clean energy investment needs. Science October 16: pp. 298-300.

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