So this bill is an insidious way to drive Americans as society towards a cleaner future. It turns small individual actions – you can better afford a heat pump or solar panels – into collective action.
But how much individual change matters in the face of systemic problems has been a difficult debate for years. For example, does it really matter if you decide to fly less to reduce your carbon footprint? After all, air travel is a tiny fraction of global emissions, and there is an entire international economic system in place that runs almost entirely on fossil fuels. Wouldn’t it be more effective to change the behavior of e.g. the airline or the oil industry?
“There’s this debate in the climate community about individual action versus systemic action,” says Jamie Alexander, director of Drawdown Labs at Project Drawdown, a climate action nonprofit. “I think this agreement helps show how these are actually not two completely different things. They are very related, and demand even at the household level can contribute massively to moving the system.”
One idea among proponents of clean energy is that in the future electricity grid, residents will not be consumers so much as participants. If more people have their own solar panels and store energy in large home batteries, like Tesla’s Powerwall, they can give up some of their extra power when they don’t need it. And if more people park electric cars at home and connect them to a local microgrid, utility operators can tap into the extra batteries at home when there is a shortage. It would mean people working together instead of relying on fossil fuels to keep the heat on or the air conditioners running.
“I feel like it’s really empowering that it’s equipping individuals to deal with climate change and be better equipped for the world we’re going to live in as it continues to change,” Alexander says. “Making homes more energy efficient will also help deal with resilience to changing weather and these heat waves that we’ve seen around the world.”
This month, for example, Texas’ precarious power grid faced another test during a punishing heat wave as people cranked up their AC units. But a desperate attempt to cool poorly insulated homes with inefficient appliances is straining the power grid – and that problem will get worse as temperatures rise. The alternative is to put those kinds of tax credits into action before the heat gets worse by installing better insulation, thicker windows and ultra-efficient heat pumps, especially in low-income communities. The internet – and public health in general – will thank us for it.
The difficult part may be finding the manpower to do all this work. Last year, the Biden administration proposed creating a Civilian Climate Corps that would get Americans to retrofit homes and grow green spaces that cool urban areas. But it did not make it into this new bill. So as the clean tech revolution accelerates in the US, it may not be demand and devices that hold us back, but a lack of trained workforce to implement it all.
This new bill is not perfect, says Casale. First, it actually is requires more offshore drilling. Nor does it penalize utilities for not introducing more renewable energy. And it still has to pass the Senate, where it will likely go to a vote in the next few weeks. But the tax credits have the potential to prepare American homes for a green energy future and for increasingly extreme weather. “The tax credit piece is really critical, really exciting,” Casale says. “This is a big step forward if we can get this across the finish line — despite some of the pieces of it that are definitely not perfect.”