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How Biden could use the Defense Production Act to boost clean energy—and improve national security

A few days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, climate activist and writer Bill McKibbon argued that the Biden administration could take on Vladimir Putin with electric heat pumps. By quickly ramping up production of the clean technology under the Defense Production Act, he wrote, the U.S. could help convert homes in Europe that rely on Russian fossil fuels for heat.

A new campaign argues that the U.S. should do the same thing for clean energy tech broadly, speeding up production of electric vehicles, batteries, solar panels, and other equipment for the sake of national security.

[Illustration: courtesy Rewiring America]

“I think we find ourselves at a turning point, where issues of climate, energy, national security, and inflation have all collided, and the world’s attention is on the impacts of our dependence on fossil fuels,” says Kevin Johnson, a veteran and clean energy entrepreneur who is part of a coalition behind the campaign called Clean Energy Freedom.

The Defense Production Act, a Cold War-era law that gives the president the power to boost manufacturing in the face of an emergency and to “promote the national defense,” has been used in a variety of ways. Former President Donald Trump used it to build ventilators for hospitals fighting COVID-19. President Joe Biden used it to speed up vaccine production. The Federal Emergency Management Agency uses it after natural disasters to get priority orders of emergency supplies. The law also specifically says that it can be used to increase production of renewable energy to build energy security.

There’s a clear case now to use the law to help deal with the climate emergency. The Pentagon says that climate change is a risk to national security, from the direct threats that extreme weather poses to military bases to an increase in conflict around the world as drought and floods impact critical water and food supplies. And what’s happening now in Ukraine—funded largely by sales of Russia’s fossil fuels—is highlighting the immediate security risks of fossil dependence.

“As we crush demand for fossil fuels, which pushes down the price for fossil fuels, that makes petro-state dictators like Putin less influential over our lives,” says Ari Matusiak, CEO of Rewiring America, a clean-energy nonprofit that is partnering on the campaign. In Europe, some countries are also accelerating plans to get off fossil fuels because of the Ukraine invasion, including Germany, which now plans to double its renewable energy supply by the end of the decade.

Tackling climate change will mean electrifying the machines we rely on in everyday life, from stoves to cars, Matusiak says. One part of the strategy can come from Congress, such as the climate policy first proposed in the Build Back Better Act, which could help consumers pay for new tech for their homes. (Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia who killed progress on the Build Back Better Act, is in talks with members of both parties on a new climate package.) But the Defense Production Act—which Biden can use through executive orders, not Congress—could also help by providing a guarantee to manufacturers that they can sell millions of pieces of equipment.

“We also need to be on a wartime footing as an economy and as a country to meet the moment,” Matusiak says. “That means we need to radically scale the production of these machines in the market. The way that you do that is you create assurances for companies that if they make those investments . . . there will be customers on the other end.”

The Defense Production Act already has funding, including $650 billion in the federal procurement fund. Several Democrats have argued that Biden should use it to act now, including Representatives Cori Bush and Jason Crow (of Missouri and Colorado, respectively), who, along with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders introduced legislation earlier this month that would call for Biden to use the DPA to build up clean energy manufacturing. Biden has already used it, in a limited way, to try to boost domestic production of minerals used in electric vehicle batteries.

The U.S. is at an inflection point now, Matusiak says, noting, “We have an opportunity to radically accelerate our progress on climate goals and energy security goals, both by embracing renewables and getting off of oil and gas and crushing demand for oil and gas. Or we could take a step back and double down on oil and gas production, which would take us further away from both our energy security goals as well as our climate goals.”