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For Young Americans, There Is No Competition Between Economic Growth and Environmental Protections

A perspective from Elijah Gullett

Elijah Gullett is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying public policy and urban and regional planning. He is interested in the intersections of regulatory policy, urban infrastructure, and climate policy.

Young Americans are bucking the partisan dogmas on climate change, preferring climate action through markets, not the government.

In recent polling from the American Conservation Coalition (ACC), survey respondents aged 18-30 wanted to reduce government regulations that made clean energy and green technologies from succeeding. They also cared strongly about both economic growth and climate change. The same young adults are also far more favorable to private industry leaders than they are toward politicians. These facts create a clear way forward for the environmental movement – environmentalism that embraces the free market and innovation. This combination creates a winning policy package for policymakers while making America more competitive on the global stage.

In ACC’s polling, which comprised young people on all sides of the political spectrum, 58% of respondents supported deregulation of private businesses to increase clean energy and technology innovation. Policymakers should heed these polls and begin looking toward the regulatory red tape that stops clean energy sources from being created and makes technological innovation harder.

One place to start would be the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which has historically made it incredibly difficult to build new nuclear power plants that provide clean, consistent energy. Recently, the NRC reversed its own decision from 2019 to extend the license of an already existing nuclear plant in Florida, using environmental review technicalities to explain its obviously political decision to halt clean power production. These problems don’t just plague Florida either. These regulations threaten all of America’s nuclear plants, and recent research indicates that half of our existing reactors will close if regulatory changes aren’t made. This stalling in nuclear energy production is potentially stopping one of our best hopes for a clean energy future.

Nuclear energy isn’t the only victim of this red tape. State and local permitting rules and inspection certificate requirements have created a hostile environment for wind and solar energy. Solar energy has seen a dramatic decrease in price since 2000, dropping from over $11 per solar panel (including soft costs and installation), to just over $4. The remaining costs are driven up in large part due to “soft costs,” which include costs for permits and inspection certifications.

Similar red tape problems arise for other alternative energy sources. Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) opposition to wind turbines has slowed deployment as locals use public hearings and regulatory pressure to halt development. Geothermal energy production is often caught up in months-long regulatory processes, even after producers submit all the necessary paperwork and permits.

These regulatory barriers to clean energy adoption and innovation mean America lags behind its competitors. Currently, the U.S. ranks 13th for energy efficiency, lagging behind Germany, the UK, China, Japan, the European Union, South Korea, and Italy. While we are only second to China in renewable energy capacity and electricity generation, China still far outpaces us.  If policymakers want to reinspire our young people and maintain America’s claim to being the greatest nation on Earth, we should be removing barriers to clean energy production and energy-efficient innovation to surpass our competitors.

China, for example, has not only invested heavily in renewable energy but has also tied renewable energy to unique entrepreneurial incentives. They have accomplished this through green pilot finance zones in five of their provinces and promoting their strongest innovators. China has also already developed the world’s first small modular reaction (SMR) for nuclear energy and actively has 19 plants under construction. While China continues to build and grow with nuclear energy, America’s regulatory environment makes this impossible.

The United States should harness its own strengths in innovation, large parcels of available land, and international leverage to make us competitive on the clean energy front. This competitiveness is important not just for international standing, but also for ensuring energy independence and leading the world in transitioning to clean energy.

American economic growth and environmental sustainability are not in conflict with one another. Policymakers should use this new polling to bolster robust, market-oriented environmental policy that not only improves the U.S. economy but also presents a positive vision of the future for younger Americans. This is a winning combination that can make America more competitive on the global stage, create energy independence, and improve our environment for future generations.

“Viewpoints” on Chapelboro is a recurring series of community-submitted opinion columns. All thoughts, ideas, opinions and expressions in this series are those of the author, and do not reflect the work or reporting of 97.9 The Hill and Chapelboro.com.