Tom Steyer’s renewable energy vision for America

Climate Action Champion Tom Steyer

Affable, informed and determined, Tom Steyer is a champion for a renewable energy-powered economy

Speaking last month about JP Morgan Chase’s decision to align its lending protocols with emissions targets set by U.N. climate scientists, Tom Steyer expressed enthusiasm that a bank with a long history of investing in fossil fuel extraction has changed their tune.

“Let’s look at who they are,” Steyer said by phone. “They’re the bank that financed frontier drilling across the riskiest places in the world and which was, until recently, headed up by the ex-CEO of Exxon Mobil,” Steyer said. “They lent hundreds of millions to billions of dollars and now they want to run their loan book according to the Paris Accord!”

Steyer’s passion for a rapid transition to a clean, affordable and socially conscious renewable energy economy is contagious. And his vision for a future powered by renewables is not unrealistic.

For over a decade, Steyer, a former hedge fund manager and 2020 Democratic Presidential nominee hopeful, has been educating Wall Street executives on the shaky future of the global fossil fuel energy complex, emphasizing that economic forces will render carbon-intensive energy stranded assets. “They would say, ‘here’s a guy who’s like a circus freak show telling me something I didn’t want to hear.’” But Steyer was right — investors who have doubled down on the fossil fuel energy sector have taken a beating.

“I know Leah [Leah Haberman is Steyer’s Press Secretary] mentioned that HSBC [formerly Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp.] committed to loan $1 trillion to the renewable energy transition,” Steyer said, pointing to the expansion of wind and solar power deployment around the world.

“As Exxon Mobil’s stock price peaked in 2007, the price per kilowatt hour of solar and wind has since plummeted. Yes, we must meet the challenge from the U.N., but also nature itself – on a deep economic and political level. That is why the recent actions of the banking industry matter, not just here at home but around the world as well,” added Steyer.

Declining upfront production expenses in the renewable energy industry, coupled with the recent motivation of long-entrenched fossil fuel financiers to green their businesses and promote meaningful carbon reduction strategies within the sectors they lend to, is driving the renewable energy transition. The question of course is how fast can the newly woke and evolving Wall Street executives’ climate adaptation positively impact the environment and the economy.

Certainly, at the very least, there will be opportunities for a growing portfolio of renewable technologies to take off. And, with the U.S. 2020 Presidential election settled, there is renewed anticipation that Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion climate plan will drive rapid technological innovation and scale promising renewable energy solutions so that the clean energy economy Biden envisions will materialize sooner than later.

Tapping Marine Renewable Energy

From remote island nations looking to move away from burning diesel oil to populous cities near waterways looking to expand their renewable energy infrastructure, marine renewable energy — the kinetic conversion of tidal, wave and river power to carbon-free electricity — is a reliable, abundant and predictable electricity source. And, for bankers looking to build sustainable, responsible and resilient lending portfolios, these break-through waterpower technologies are drawing attention.

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Location of Verdant Power’s tidal turbines in the East River of NYC (Courtesy Verdant Power)

In the East River of New York City, between Roosevelt Island and the Borough of Queens, is one such project. In October, coordinating river barges, tugboats and power boats collaborated to deploy Verdant Power’s tidal turbines onto the river’s seafloor, just north of the Roosevelt Island Bridge.

Marking a major milestone for the tidal power industry, 45 team members, assisted by the U.S. Department of Energy, the N.Y. State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and Con Edison, choreographed what appeared to this writer to be a monumental display of American ingenuity. The launch of the turbines into the river and their electrical connection to the shore was seemingly flawless.

Verdant Power earlier pioneered the first array of grid connected tidal turbines. This new project, deployed on October 22, represents a successor and transformational technology using Verdant’s commercial 5th generation system.

As tugboats escorted the turbines up the East River from New York Harbor, Verdant Power’s CEO John Banigan described his business as the “New York-based, American ‘new renewable power’ company with a global footprint.”

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Evening launch of Verdant Power’s TriFrame tidal turbines into the East River of NYC on October 22, 2020 (Courtesy, Verdant Power)

Banigan’s business is also a true Made-in-America story.

Manufacturers in 15 states — from Wyoming to New Jersey — produced, assembled and delivered Verdant Power’s tidal power system to New York City. Pennsylvania poured the castings; New York strung the cables; Wisconsin cranked out the gears; Michigan spun the blades and Georgia powered-up the generators.

Tides Powering Turbines

Tidal turbines look a lot like wind turbines, except that they’re “hidden” below the surface of the water body they occupy. Secured to the bottom of the East River, the turbines spin as tides rise and recede. They’re designed to reverse their orientation to the sea floor by passively yawing through 180 degrees. The rotors then spin the same direction on incoming and outgoing tides, optimizing the electricity output to the local grid. The TriFrame design is also more efficient than installing three individual tidal turbines, thus lowering the cost of power production.

Marine energy can help turn the tide of the climate crisis, according to Steyer, who insists that we must harness every opportunity to reverse the worst impacts of a warming planet:

“We are living in a climate crisis. There’s havoc playing out all over the world. If we want to prevent the natural world from deteriorating faster than we can adapt to it, we have to invest today,” Steyer said.

“That’s why I’m talking to big businesspeople, telling them ‘you don’t have a choice anymore.’ I’m telling them that we need a renewable energy job revolution committed to social, racial and environmental justice. Yes, we must meet the challenge from the U.N., but also nature itself — on a deep economic and political level. That is why the recent actions of the banking industry matter, not just here at home but around the world as well.”

Steyer and his wife, Kat, started Beneficial State Bank fifteen years ago to fund women and minority-owned businesses. The lending requirements include a review of the carbon footprint of the projects they finance. Though Steyer once invested in fossil fuels, he has since divested from the industry because of what he calls the “unintended consequences” of oil, gas and coal operations, with the catastrophic heat-trapping properties of methane gas being among his biggest concerns.

Steyer encourages other investors to do the same:

“We all come from a fossil fuel economy, but renewables combined with batteries are the future that will sustain us and grow a new energy economy,” he said.

“There are so many new businesses and products that America can lead in — don’t ever underestimate American business and American people and working people,” he said.

Fortunately, wherever there are opportunities for change, innovation and improvement, the free market economy, ultimately, seizes them.

Stacy Clark, a contributing clean tech and energy writer, environmental geologist and climate advisor, is also a children’s author (When the Wind Blows, Holiday House, 2015 and Planet Power, Barefoot Books, 2021). She’s a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers.

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